ELMONT, N.Y. -- Tabasco Cat yesterday relived the stretch run that had carried him to victory in the Preakness.
With the same kind of gritty move that he made under jockey Pat Day at Pimlico Race Course three weeks ago, the chestnut colt wore down Kentucky Derby champion Go For Gin in mid-stretch and pulled away for a two-length victory in the $653,800 Belmont Stakes.
Go For Gin held on for second, a half-length in front of Strodes Creek, the surprising 6-5 favorite.
It is the first time since Hansel won in 1991 that a Preakness winner has triumphed in the Belmont, but the ninth time in Triple Crown history that a horse has won the Preakness and Belmont after failing to win the Kentucky Derby. Tabasco Cat finished sixth in the Derby this year, trailing Go For Gin by nine lengths on a sloppy racing surface.
"I'd love to play the first Saturday of May over again on a dry track," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who won his first Belmont in eight tries since 1980. "But there is only one Derby, one Preakness and one Belmont. You count your blessings if you get two of them."
Tabasco Cat stalked pacesetter Go For Gin for nearly the entire 1 1/2 -mile race until he moved beside him at the 3/16ths pole and then moved away.
On a main track described as lightning fast, and where two track records were set earlier on the card, Tabasco Cat ran a final time of 2 minutes, 26 4/5 seconds, tied with 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed as the fifth fastest Belmont. The Belmont record is still held by Secretariat, who ran the 12 furlongs in 2:24 in 1973.
Despite his Preakness victory, Tabasco Cat was sent off the 3-1 third choice in a six-horse field that lost some of its luster after Santa Anita Derby winner Brocco was scratched because of a bruised foot.
Strodes Creek, the lightly raced 3-year-old trained by Hall of Fame horseman Charlie Whittingham, was the surprising 6-5 favorite over Go For Gin, the second choice at 9-5 odds. At Churchill Downs, Strodes Creek was an even shorter price, going off the 1-2 favorite and at Hollywood Park in California he was the 3-5 favorite.
Tabasco Cat paid $8.80, $3.80 and $2.40 and the 2-1 exacta with Go For Gin returned $19.20.
Even though Strodes Creek was the favorite, he broke slowly, dropped the bit at the top of the stretch when lodging a bid, and finished third under jockey Jerry Bailey.
L Lukas said the scratch of Brocco did not alter his strategy.
"I thought that either Ulises or Go For Gin would be up there with Brocco and Tabasco Cat in the second tier. I thought Strodes Creek would show more speed this time than he has. I saw it as those first two out in front and then us in the garden spot," Lukas said.
That's just about how the race developed. After Ulises, who held up the start of the Kentucky Derby when he failed to load properly, was blindfolded and loaded first, he surprisingly took back off the pace.
Go For Gin went to the front, followed by Tabasco Cat with Ulises in third. Strodes Creek was a close-up fourth after recovering from his poor start.
Then, in another surprising development, McCarron took Go For Gin extremely wide on the first turn instead of hugging the rail.
"I don't know what was going on in Chris' mind," Day said. "But the race shaped up a lot like the Preakness anyway with us sitting right behind the pace. I played cat and mouse with Chris and then thought the field would swarm up on us around the three-eighths pole to the one-quarter pole and then we'd kick in to the wire."
McCarron said he was far away from the rail on the first turn because "I was a little wide anyway and my horse saddled up to the right just a little bit. I wasn't bothering anybody at that point, so I didn't see any reason to pull him back in. He did it again [going into the last turn]. I let him go out again and he wasn't bothering anybody. Going into the far turn I looked back and saw the other horse [Tabasco Cat] and I moved over a little. I wanted to kick sand in his face and discourage him."
At that point, McCarron thought he was the winner.
"I thought I had a lot of horse and when I asked him to run at the quarter pole, he cut," McCarron said. 'I thought, all right, I'm home now.' Then that other horse collared me and showed a tremendous turn of foot."
Nick Zito, Go For Gin's trainer, echoed McCarron's sentiment. "Chris said my horse ran his heart out and so did Tabasco Cat. We have no excuse."
For Lukas, the race carried added meaning since it was Tabasco Cat that trampled his son Jeff last December and nearly killed him.
"I tried to separate the horse from the incident and make him special," Lukas said. "I thought I owed it to his owner, Bill Young, who stood by me and gave me a lot of support after the Union City episode last year. I think this is the best 3-year-old I've ever trained, even better than Winning Colors, the filly that won the Derby."
In citing Union City, Lukas was referring to Young's colt who broke a leg in the Preakness and was destroyed.
Day, who previously won the Belmont Stakes on Easy Goer in 1989, said he doesn't quite rank Tabasco Cat in Easy Goer's league.
In addition to Young, Tabasco Cat is owned by David P. Reynolds, a longtime Maryland owner-breeder. The horse ran in Reynolds' colors when he won the Preakness and it is Reynolds' colors that are painted on the infield cupola at Pimlico. The two owners alternate colors for each of the horse's races.
"I thought winning the Preakness was the top," Young said. "But the feeling is cumulative."
Yesterday's crowd at Belmont Park was 42,695, the lowest since 1986 and about 3,000 fewer fans than last year. Business at the betting windows also dropped. The on-track handle this year amounted to $7,588,802.96 -- about $1 million less than last year.
The handle at 671 simulcast outlets amounted to $13,848,321, about a 20 percent decline from 1993.