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7 Burning Belmont Questions

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After American Pharoah ran away with both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, racing fans have been clamoring that this might finally be the year we get to see another Triple Crown winner. The Belmont Stakes, the venerable race and final jewel in the Triple Crown, has dashed the hopes of more than a few highly touted contenders, but what makes the race so special? Here are some answers to our favorite Belmont questions.

Why is it called the Belmont Stakes?

August Belmont, a wealthy businessman, provided the financial backing for the first running of the race in 1867. (The Belmont is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races. The Preakness wasn't run until 1873, and the Kentucky Derby didn't start until 1875.) The race was originally run at the Bronx's Jerome Park Racetrack, but it moved to Morris Park Racecourse in 1890 before finally settling at its current home of Belmont Park in 1905. (Interestingly, one of Belmont's partners was Leonard Jerome, grandfather of Winston Churchill.) These first races would have looked odd to modern racing fans; until 1921 the race was run in the English fashion of having the horses circle the track clockwise.

The filly Ruthless took the first running of the race, earning her owners $1,850 after winning by a head. Her win was exceedingly unusual, though; only 22 fillies have attempted the race in its history. Only three have claimed the victor's carnations: Ruthless, Tanya in 1905, and 2007 winner Rags to Riches.

So the race has been run continuously since 1867?

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Not quite. In the early 20th century, the New York state legislature passed anti-betting laws, a step that severely hampered a gambling-based industry. As a result, Belmont Park closed down, and the race wasn't run in 1911 or 1912. Luckily, gaming-minded heads eventually prevailed, and the race resumed its normal schedule with Prince Eugene's 1913 win.

What makes it so tough?

As you might have noticed, it's not uncommon for a horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to wear out in the Belmont. The race is held at a grueling distance, a mile and a half (12 furlongs) compared to 10 furlongs for the Kentucky Derby and 9.5 furlongs for the Preakness. The extra distance may not sound like a lot, but it makes it tricky to win all three races. The race was originally even longer, though; from 1867-1873 it was run at 13 furlongs.

Only 11 horses have claimed the Triple Crown, and none has done it since Affirmed triumphed in 1978. Many have gotten close, though. Charismatic came achingly close in 1999 when he led in the final furlong, only to break his leg and fall back into third. Since 2000, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and California Chrome have all gotten two-thirds of the way to the Triple Crown, only to fall short in the Belmont, while in 2012 I'll Have Another won the Derby and the Preakness before having to be scratched from the Belmont because of tendonitis. 

Who was the race's biggest winner?

Secretariat's run in 1973 pretty much speaks for itself. It set the world record for a mile and a half dirt race at 2:24, and impressively blew the rest of the field out of the water. "Big Red," as he was nicknamed, sped across the finish line a full 31 lengths ahead of his closest pursuer. The run was so impressive that thousands of people who had bet on Secretariat to win never cashed their tickets, choosing instead to keep them as a memento of the dominant performance. Watch it for yourself above.

What's the official drink of the race?

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Although the Belmont is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races, its signature drink does not have a storied history. From the 1970s through the 1997 race, spectators drank the White Carnation, a concoction of vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, soda water, and cream. 

Fans weren't crazy about drinking a creamy cocktail on hot June days, so organizers commissioned a new cocktail starting with the 1998 race. The Belmont Breeze, which was invented by celebrated mixologist and "the King of Cocktails" Dale DeGroff, became the official tipple of the Belmont Stakes. The drink eschewed the relative simplicity of the Derby's mint julep and the Preakness' Black-Eyed Susan in favor of a modern rendition of a whiskey punch. DeGroff's original recipe included a mixture of blended whiskey, Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, fresh orange juice, and cranberry juice shaken together and topped with 7 Up and soda, then garnished with strawberry, a lemon piece, and a sprig of mint. The result is a refreshing, if complicated, summer drink.

The Belmont Breeze never really caught on, either, so in 2011 the Belmont once again refreshed its liquor cabinet. The result was the Belmont Jewel, a cocktail of bourbon, lemonade, and pomegranate juice served on ice. It might not challenge the mint julep's popularity, but it sounds refreshing enough. 

Are there any other relatively recent traditions?

Indeed there are. Since 1997, the crowd has belted out "New York, New York" during the race's post parade. Prior to that, the race's song was "Sidewalks of New York." The tradition of a post parade isn't new at all, though. In fact, the common sight of seeing horses trot in front of the grandstand on their way to the post was first seen in the United States at the 14th running of the Belmont Stakes in 1880.

What does the winner get?

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If American Pharoah takes the Triple Crown, he will get all sorts of great loot, including a place in racing's pantheon of greats and a rumored $4 million bonus on stallion rights that have supposedly already sold for $9.8 million. Every winner gets to wear the race's trademark blanket of white carnations and receives the race's impressive trophy. The trophy, which was designed by Tiffany, is an 18-inch tall silver bowl topped with a sculpture of Fenian, the winner of the third Belmont. Sculptures of three other horses support the trophy's base. This trio of Eclipse, Matchem, and Herod were all champion 18th-century thoroughbreds who are considered to be "foundation" horses since they appear in the pedigree of so many modern thoroughbreds. The Belmont family donated the trophy, which has been given to every winner since 1926. This year's winner also gets a $800,000 cut of the event's $1.5 million purse.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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