Belmont Stakes littered with pitfalls

Jockey Mike Smith rode Drosselmeyer to victory in the Belmont Stakes last year. Contrary to popular belief, the 11/2-mile race — the final leg of the Triple Crown — doesn't favor closers.
Jockey Mike Smith rode Drosselmeyer to victory in the Belmont Stakes last year. Contrary to popular belief, the 11/2-mile race — the final leg of the Triple Crown — doesn't favor closers. ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the afternoon of June 9, 2001, there wasn't a horse within 10 lengths of Point Given in the Belmont Park stretch, yet jockey Gary Stevens felt himself getting a little jittery.

"I remember around the sixteenth pole I thought I heard hoofbeats coming and I was like 'Come on wire,' " Stevens recalled.

As it turned out, it was just the sound of Stevens' arm number flapping in the wind during Point Given's 121/4-length triumph in that 133rd Belmont Stakes that gave the now-retired Hall of Fame rider pause.

But considering the track Stevens was on and the race he was in, he knew better than to take what seemed like an ideal scenario for granted.

While every race presents its own set of challenges, perhaps no contest offers more potential pitfalls or is less kind to newcomers than the 12-furlong monster that is the Belmont Stakes.

Quite simply, there is no track in America like Belmont Park. Where most of the nation's ovals are one mile to 11⁄8-mile in circumference, Belmont's sprawling 11/2-mile main track — the same distance horses must travel in the final leg of the Triple Crown — makes it the Shaquille O'Neal of the Thoroughbred world, able to intimidate would-be conquerors by virtue of its sheer size.

Where a horse might be 3 furlongs from home on conventional tracks, at Belmont you're actually about 5 furlongs from the wire. Even seasoned jockeys can find themselves lost if they aren't experienced with the track's vastness.

"For a young rider or rider who hasn't raced Belmont Park, no matter how many races you've ridden in your career, it's difficult to take in just how big it is," said Stevens, who won the Belmont Stakes three times in his illustrious career aboard Thunder Gulch (1995), Victory Gallop (1998), and Point Given. "It's almost like a person being snow-blind. You can't see in front of you, you don't know where you're at, you don't know which direction is which.

"With the mile and a half (of the Belmont Stakes), when you turn into the backstretch, you've still got a mile to go. When you turn into the backstretch and see the big red and white pole, that's where the 6-furlong pole normally is. That's how I've seen Belmont affect many riders. They lose track of where they're actually at on the racetrack."

It is no shock the Belmont Stakes is littered with the regrets of jockeys who made what were perceived as premature moves in the race — from Ron Franklin on Spectacular Bid in 1979 to Calvin Borel's effort aboard Mine That Bird two years ago.

But getting the poles figured out is only half the battle. How the pace sets up can also be deceiving for jockeys; it can be hard to gauge just how fast they are traveling over the track known as Big Sandy.

If a rider feels as though he just covered an opening quarter in :23, more than likely the Belmont tote board is going to reflect fractions closer to :22.

"As I started riding at Belmont, guys said you wait until you think you've waited too long and then you wait a little longer and that proved to be pretty true," said Hall of Famer Pat Day, another three-time Belmont Stakes winner with Easy Goer (1989), Tabasco Cat (1994) and Commendable (2000). "The common thought with the Belmont is because it is so long, it's going to really be an asset to horses who come from well behind because they have more time to make up the ground."

Contrary to popular belief, the 11/2-mile "Test of the Champion" often favors horses with speed more than closers. Where the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes usually produce honest fractions, it is common to see the opening half hover around the :48 or :49 mark in the Belmont — making it all the more daunting for late-runners to reel in those sitting close to the pace.

"One of the biggest fallacies about the Belmont is that it is a closer's race," said retired jockey Chris McCarron, who won his first Belmont aboard Danzig Connection in 1986 before ruining Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid on Touch Gold in 1997. "The Belmonts I won, I got lucky. There was a slow pace, so it was beneficial to be up on the lead. But when I rode Alysheba in 1987, I did not ride a very smart race.

"The pace was not all that fast and because his style was coming from behind I took him too far back and left him with too much to do. You have to be cognizant of how fast the horses are going up on the lead to be able to determine how long to sit and when to make your move."

Of all the tactical moves needed to get a horse to go the 11/2-mile distance the first time, having a feeling of relaxation underneath them might be most important of all for Belmont jockeys.

"As long as the horse is going easy and going comfortable without you asking anything, that's the plan," said jockey John Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes aboard the filly Rags to Riches and will ride Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom on Saturday. "Obviously going a mile and a half, the most important thing for the race is to save as much as you can for the last quarter of a mile."

Since 11/2-mile dirt races have pretty much gone the way of VHS tapes in this country, there isn't a whole lot other than experience to truly ready a jockey for the unique Belmont Stakes experience.

Take it from those who have won a Belmont or two in their day, though. The best way to master the colossal track and its signature race is by showing both the proper respect.

"Know that it's like the ocean," Stevens said of Belmont. "It's powerful and it can swallow you up and make you look like an idiot real quick."