ELMONT, N.Y. — The organizers of the original Belmont Stakes must have been either cold-hearted or liked to revel in the misfortunes of others.
How else do you explain how difficult the Belmont race is, even compared to the other Triple Crown races?
With its unique mile-and-a-half distance and its deep, sandy running base, Belmont Park is thoroughbred racing’s biggest challenge. Unlike any other track.
There are 12 Triple Crown champions, with American Pharoah ending the 37-year drought three years ago. Twenty-three other horses won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but couldn’t win the Belmont. Only eight finished second.
“This is uncharted waters,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Before Justify sinks or swims in his Triple Crown bid Saturday, let’s look at the factors involved in past Belmont races:U
The jockey often makes the decision of when to call on the horse for the stretch run. In the extra-long Belmont, jockeys have had problems.
Ron Franklin, 19 at the time, couldn’t bring Spectacular Bid home in 1979. “When I looked up, that quarter-mile looked like three miles to me,” Franklin said.
Critics believe Stewart Elliott faltered on Smarty Jones in 2004. Elliott used his colt up too early, as he tried to avoid being boxed in by two peers, including Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Famer who’s part of this year’s Belmont TV coverage. A too quick 23.11 third quarter provided Smarty Jones with a four-length lead, but he was caught by 36-1 long shot Birdstone.
Mike Smith, Justify’s jockey, feels he cost Paynter the 2012 Belmont. Eventual winner Union Rags was stuck on the rail before Smith began hitting Paynter left-handed with the whip. When the horse lunged out, a path opened up for John Velazquez, Union Rags’ jock. “Union Rags should have never gotten thorough on me,” Smith said.
Other jockeys have been faulted, particularly Kent Desormeaux’s ride on Real Quiet in 1998 that many in the business think cost Bob Baffert, Justify’s trainer, what would have been, at the time, his first Triple Crown.
Trainers are supposed to deliver the horses in top condition on race day, but their methods are often questioned.
Barclay Tagg, the journeyman trainer of Funny Cide, raised a lot of eyebrows in 2003, when he took the gelding out for a workout days before the Belmont. Funny Cide responded with a sizzling 57.4 for 5 furlongs, the fastest of 49 workouts at that distance, on that day, at Belmont. “That was a little faster than we wanted,” Tagg said.
Skeptics agreed after Funny Cide ran third to Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted in the Belmont.
Not all of Tagg’s methods failed. For the Preakness, he had Funny Cide transported by van from New York, arriving in the early hours on race day. By comparison, Justify arrived at Belmont on Wednesday on a flight from Kentucky, his post-Preakness training base.
The added distance
The possibility of late-afternoon thunderstorms shouldn’t affect Justify. If anything, it should help him, given how he won the first two Triple Crown races on sloppy surfaces.
The biggest concern for his handlers is the colt’s stamina. Let’s not forget that Justify did not race as a 2-year-old, and this will be his sixth race since Feb. 18.
And, of course, there’s everybody’s concern about the added distance. American horses are not bred to go a mile and a half.
So in a race that has more closers than early speed, don’t be surprised if Justify jumps out of his starting position on the rail to take the early lead so he can dictate the moderate early pace that he needs to hold off the closers in a race traditionally won by more early pacesetters than closers.
“Distance is the great equalizer,” said New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling. “Talent and distance, they can create odd situations.”