ELMONT, N.Y., June 8 (UPI) -- For the 24th straight year, there is no Triple Crown winner.
Instead, Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes -- the third jewel of the Triple Crown -- ended in the biggest upset in the 134-year history of the race.
Sarava, making just his second stakes start, swept to the lead on the turn for home and went on to win by a half length over Medaglio d'Oro. A $2 win bet on Sarava paid $142.50.
War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, stumbed out of the gate Saturday and almost threw his jockey. That major misstep cost him the lead and, according to both jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert, any chance to win the race.
Espinoza worked War Emblem into contention and actually took the lead on the turn for home. But running from behind is not the colt's style and he could not maintain the effort. He faded to beat just three horses in the 11-horse field.
"It was lost at the start," Baffert said. "I told Victor the only thing that could beat us was a bad break."
War Emblem suffered more than a bad break. He almost fell to his knees as he stumbled for several steps at the start.
"I saw the ground very close to me," Espinoza said. "I was very lucky to stay on the horse."
That let Megaglio d'Oro take the initial lead, later joined by Wiseman's Ferry. Espinoza then found himself boxed in down the backstretch, although he slipped through on the rail on the far turn and seemed to be poised for a stretch run that would have put him in the history book.
But Espinoza ran out of horse, something he said he knew would happen seconds after the start of the race.
"By that time (at the end of the backstretch), I was already used," Espinoza said. "So it (briefly taking the lead) was not that big of a deal. It was hard for him to stumble and almost go to the ground and come back and win the race is almost possible."
"It was tough to watch that race," said Baffert, who for the third time in six years brought a horse to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown and who has been bitterly disappointed on each occasion. "It was doomed from the start."
Sarava, meanwhile, was hanging around close to the lead, having followed War Emblem along the rail to the end of the backstretch.
When jockey Edgar Prado asked him to run, he easily went by the leaders at the top of the stretch. Medaglia d'Oro, who led from the mile pole to the top of the stretch, held on gamely and finished 9 1/2 lengths ahead of Sunday Break.
War Emblem finished eighth, beaten 19 1/2 lengths.
The outcome was a disappointment to the record crowd that jammed into Belmont Park in hopes of seeing a Triple Crown winner for the first time since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978. The quest for a winner was doubly poignant this year as a result of the death May 7 of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner. After his death, the sport was left for the first time with no living winner of the three-race series.
For winning trainer Ken McPeek, the victory was a huge turnaround. McPeek had two of the early Kentucky Derby favorites in Harlan's Holiday and Repent.
Repent was injured one race before the Kentucky Derby and Harlan's Holiday never fired in the big race and McPeek lost him to another trainer earlier this week.
"It's so ironic to have the early favorites on the Derby trail -- and now this," McPeek said after the Belmont.
"I brought him up here early and got him a couple of nice gallops. We'll take it any way we can get it."
Sarava, a Kentucky-bred son of Wild Again, earned his way into the Belmont with a victory three weeks ago in the Sir Barton Stakes -- a supporting event on the Preakness undercard.
That was only his second victory in eight lifetime starts. He never hit the board in three starts on the turf last year in England and finally broke into the win column in his first start in the United States last November at Churchill Downs.
That record led bettors to overlook the colt and he paid $142.50, $50 and $22.40. Medaglia d'Oro returned $16 and $10.60. Sunday Break paid $7.10.
The $2 exacta paid $2,454 and the $2 trifecta paid $25,209. The $2 superfecta returned $145,334. No Belmont Stakes winner has ever been sent off at such long odds.
"Of course we were shocked," said part-owner Gary Drake. "You don't lead a horse over there at 70-1 and not be surprised when he wins." But he said he expected Sarava to run well because he had been improving throughout his training at Belmont.
"We just didn't know how good he was. You never do until you throw him in the ring with this kind," McPeek said. "Honestly, I don't gamble at all. I just thought he was very much overlooked. We've got to teach some of these handicappers how to do math."
When War Emblem broke poorly, McPeek said, "I thought we had a chance to win the race."
"You have to deal with all the ups and downs," he said, referring to this disappointments of Harlan's Holiday and Repent. "Only one guy gets to sit in this chair today."