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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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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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