Riding the Belmont is Unlike Riding Any Other Race in the World
By Richard Rosenblatt
There is no easy way to win the Belmont Stakes, no tried and true set of rules for navigating one lap around a racetrack that is unlike any other in the world.
That’s because one trip around Belmont Park on the first Saturday in June is a daunting 1½ miles, about the longest race any thoroughbred will ever run in his life. Jockeys rarely ride that far, either, so when it comes to strategy, there are all kinds of opinions on what it takes to be successful in racing’s “Test of the Champion.’’
A handful of Hall of Fame riders chimed in recently on their Belmont excursions, discussing what it takes to conquer the Belmont. Kent Desormeaux and others say experience counts; Gary Stevens says respect for the track and the distance is a must; and all stressed patience, patience and more patience.
Considered one of the toughest Belmont beats ever, Desormeaux has had to deal with the criticism of moving too early aboard Real Quiet in ‘98. Life did not get easier in 2008. After Big Brown won theDerby and Preakness, the colt was pulled up around the turn for home and finished last. Finally, the 40-year-old Cajun came through with Summer Bird last year for his first Belmont win, his colt surging into the lead inside the sixteenth pole to beat Dunkirk by 2¾ lengths.
He says the toughest part of the Belmont is knowing where you are.
“It’s such an enormous circumference that even the horses get lost,’’ said Desormeaux. “Horses that usually fall into a turn and kick, that are schooled to do that, usually come up empty at the eighth pole because when you fall into a turn here, you’re five-eighths of a mile from the finish line. The horse doesn’t realize it, and some of the riders don’t realize it, so that’s probably the biggest thing.
“But there’s a lot more involved. You have to know your horse as well as knowing the lay of the land.’’
Stevens had great success in the Belmont, winning three times in nine attempts, aboard Thunder Gulch (1995), Victory Gallop (1998) and Point Given (2001).
“It’s a very tactical race and you definitely benefit if you know and respect Belmont Park because it can be overwhelming,’’ said Stevens, who finished sixth in his first Belmont with Derby winner Winning Colors in 1988. ``It’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to believe you’re going slower than what you really are. It can fool you into thinking that you have less ground to go than you do. I always thought of myself as a patient rider, but I knew I had to be even more patient at Belmont Park.
“I’ll admit, the first couple of times I rode at Belmont Park I came back and looked at the fractions on the toteboard and I’d go, “God, how could I be far off?’’ As for respect: It’s almost like respecting the ocean. It can be your friend, but it can be your worst enemy.’’
Arguably racing’s most aggressive rider, Cordero knows Belmont Park as well as anyone. He may have been 1 for 21 in the Belmont, but victory was a heart-pounding wire-to-wire success aboard sprint sensation Bold Forbes, who hung on by a neck in 1976 to beat McKenzie Bridge.
The win backs up his theory of allowing his horse to run the way he’s used to. For Bold Forbes, it was on the lead.
“The key to the mile-and-a-half is to be able to rate a horse without taking too much out of him,’’ he said. “It’s a distance they’ve never run before and these horses all get eager. Sometimes, they get confused. It happened to Spectacular Bid, to Smarty Jones and others. They just move.
“The other thing riders have on their mind is they have to be on the lead at the quarterpole. That’s a lot of bull. I saw Little Current (1974) come from way back off a slow pace to win.
“I am a believer that you ride a horse the way he likes to be ridden.’’
McCarron won the 1986 Belmont aboard Danzig Connection before winning on Touch Gold in ‘97. He rode in 11 Belmonts and came away feeling that riding on the undercard is a big help.
“You get out there and get a feel for the track, and that’s more important if you haven’t ridden on it a great deal,’’ he said. “Sometimes, it can be slow going along the rail, so you have to pay attention and watch the head ons down the backside and see where winners are coming from with relation to the inside fence.’’
McCarron points out that despite the distance, speed horses are still capable winning the Belmont. “Unless it’s too fast a pace, I think speed holds up pretty well,’’ he said.
Like Stevens and McCarron, Day was not a New York-based rider. However, he scored one of the most popular Belmont wins when local hero Easy Goer won in ‘89 and prevented Sunday Silence from winning the Triple Crown. Day also won aboard Tabasco Cat in 1994 and 18-1 long shot Commendable in 2000.
His Belmont philosophy is simple – be on a horse that can get a mile-and-a-half.
“My whole approach was to get them away from the gate, get them comfortable and try to conserve as much energy until you felt that the time was right,’’ he said. “I always felt that a good horse at his very best is a quarterof- a-mile all out run, so I tried to conserve the energy to the last quarter-mile or shorter, depending where I was laying.
“With Easy Goer, we went to Sunday Silence and Le Voyageur at the three-sixteenths pole, got past them and kept Easy Goer to the task. He was a genuine mile-and-a-half horse and won the race quite easily.
“My advice? I’d tell the rider to be aware of the distance, that the pace isn’t always what you expect and not to get in a rush.’’