By Julian Linden
(Reuters) - The Belmont Stakes may not carry the same prestige as the Kentucky Derby but in U.S. horse racing, it is the one race that determines which horses join the stable of immortals.
As the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont is the race where the greatest horses are coronated - but also the one where their dreams can be shattered.
At 1 1/2 miles (2400 meters) it is the longest and most grueling leg of the Triple Crown, run over a distance that none of the 3-year-olds in contention have attempted before.
The Belmont straight has proven the downfall of almost two dozen Triple Crown hopefuls who fell short after an exhausting campaign in which they race three times in five weeks, each in different states and over different distances on dirt tracks.
The challenge is made even more daunting because many of the top contenders who are beaten in the Kentucky Derby skip the Preakness Stakes to conserve their energy for the Belmont, which has been dubbed the "The Test of the Champion."
In almost 150 years, 11 horses have passed that test and completed the elusive treble, but more than twice as many have suffered heartbreaking losses with glory in their sight.
Pensive (1944), Tim Tam (1958), Forward Pass (1968), Majestic Price (1969), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and Smarty Jones (2004) all finished second, agonizingly close to the ultimate success.
Northern Dancer (1964), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Charismatic (1999) and Funny Cide (2003) all came third.
Many of the horses suffered injuries and never raced again.
Spectacular Bid had won 12 consecutive races before the Belmont but suffered a freak accident before the race when he stepped on a safety pin that became embedded in his hoof and caused an infection that almost killed him.
Charismatic surged into the lead in the Belmont with less a furlong to go when he fractured two bones in his left foreleg. He almost died from his injuries but was saved and went on to a successful career as a stallion.
In 2008, Big Brown was the 11th and most recent horse to go to the Belmont with a shot at winning the Triple Crown.
He started as the odds-on favorite but when the field turned for home, the horse failed to respond and jockey Kent Desormeaux eased him up and he trotted over the line.
It has been 36 years since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, and for race fans the wait has been agonizing.
Two years ago, I'll Have Another emerged as a horse to possibly end the drought when he won the first two legs only to be scratched from the Belmont on the eve of the race due to tendonitis.
On Saturday in New York, California Chrome will get his chance to join one of the sport's most elite clubs with the racing world willing him to victory.
(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)