Opinion: American Pharoah just may be far superior to any 3-year-old and will win the Belmont Stakes easily, becoming racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.
Fact: American Pharoah has no experience at Belmont Park and would be the first Triple Crown winner in history to win the Belmont Stakes without having at least one race over the track. He will not even have a workout.
Opinion: All that could very well mean absolutely nothing, because back in the 1930s and ‘40s, New York and Belmont were the center of the racing universe and almost every top-class horse got his or her start there.
Fact: Victor Espinoza is 4-for-73 lifetime at Belmont Park, while finishing out of the money in 55 of his 73 starts. None of his four victories have been farther than one mile, and in six of the last eight years he had no mounts at Belmont. In graded stakes at Belmont, he is 2-for-40, finishing out of the money 32 times.
Opinion: That was then and this is now, and often being on the best horse, and a potential superstar, can overcome statistics, especially if you’re a future Hall of Famer. But this is the only part of the Triple Crown picture over which American Pharoah has no control. You can have the fastest car in the world and be the greatest driver in the world, but if you’re driving on a tricky, unfamiliar road with a lot of quirky twists and turns you’re going to have more trouble finding your way than those who drive on it on a regular basis. So the obvious solution would be for Espinoza to take as many mounts as possible on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with a mount in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap being the most ideal scenario, giving him the feel of negotiating both those unforgiving turns. Horses and jockeys simply are not used to running around two turns at Belmont, where ground loss can prove disastrous.
By taking as many mounts as possible, Espinoza not only can get used to Belmont’s idiosyncrasies, he can see first hand if the surface is undergoing any changes.
Espinoza has been in this position twice before, with War Emblem and California Chrome, and met with unfortunate incidents at the start on both occasions.
In the past, when horses have tried to sweep the Triple Crown, trainers and jockeys have approached the Belmont as just another race, just longer. Strategy has often been described in such simplistic terms as, “It’s just another racetrack; you keep making left-hand turns,” or “The poles are in the same place as other tracks (not true),” or “If you have the best horse, the racetrack won’t make any difference.”
That last point very well could be true, but the fact is, many jockeys who don’t have experience at Belmont Park, especially going 1 1/2 miles, get lost on those sweeping turns, with the far turn being what I call the turn of no return. Once you make a mistake on that turn, especially going that far, there is no recovering from it.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but you do not want to get caught wide on the first turn and you certainly don’t want to go into the second turn wide. At Belmont, the ideal trip is to remain closer to the rail (if it is playing fair), then ease out nearing the quarter pole or waiting for an opening on the inside. Going wide at the five-sixteenths pole or quarter pole is not a big deal. It is going into the turn wide that leaves horses rubber-legged after turning for home, as they are forced to lose ground for a very long time while negotiating that seemingly endless turn.
In recent years, look at the huge efforts turned in by Commissioner, Union Rags, Paynter, Stay Thirsty, Dunkirk, and Da’ Tara, all of whom saved ground while either setting the pace or sitting right off the pace. Even late closers like Afleet Alex and Summer Bird saved ground all the way before swinging to the outside nearing the quarter pole. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, especially with the different ways the track plays, and we saw those exceptions with Drosselmeyer, and to a lesser degree, Tonalist and Palace Malice, who raced a bit farther out from the rail. But in Drosselmeyer’s case, they crawled every quarter (1:14 4/5 and 1:40 1/5) and they crawled home (:26 4/5) in what was a far below average field. And in Palace Malice’s Belmont, they staggered home the final quarter in :27 3/5. When they run that slowly it doesn’t matter if you lose ground or not.
In 2009, Calvin Borel was unfamiliar with Belmont and did not take any mounts before the Belmont Stakes. He went very wide into the far turn aboard Mine That Bird and got hung out there while making a huge run to move right up to the leaders as if he were going to win by daylight. It looked like he was the strongest horse at the head of the stretch and had the race all but won. But he was late changing leads and Summer Bird, who had saved ground the whole way and then eased to the outside, blew by him in the stretch, and even Dunkirk, saving ground on the rail the whole way while setting the pace, was able to battle back and beat Mine That Bird for second.
Now, none of that will matter if American Pharoah draws inside and is on the lead, or just off it. But you never know where he’s going to draw. Even with eight in there now, if he draws outside, Espinoza is going to have to use him a bit to get a good position going into the first turn and avoid losing too much ground, especially if the other riders are intent on floating him as wide as possible. That first turn can be a killer if you get hung too wide with a fast rail. In short, it’s tough enough having to go 1 1/2 miles; you don’t want to have to go any farther than that if you don’t have to. But with the field reduced in size, it will make life a lot easier for Espinoza, regardless of where he draws. Only Materiality looks to have enough early speed to run with him.
As far as staying on the rail, that is going to be up to Bob Baffert. The great John Nerud has always said the key to Belmont is knowing the track on that day and watch how the track is maintained the days leading up to the race. And he’ll be able to tell by watching all the races run on that Friday and of course on Saturday. According to Nerud, it all depends on what the crew does with the cushion. If they remove a good part of the cushion on the inside and dump it 20-25 feet out from the rail, you want to get on that rail and stay there, especially from the five-sixteenths pole to the eighth pole.. If they leave the cushion alone, because of the pitch of the track, it likely will be slower down on the inside.
Another pitfall a jockey on a big favorite has to be aware of is the dreaded target on his back. We saw what happened to Smarty Jones when the jockeys on the three main contenders used gang warfare to not only get him beat, but get themselves beat, as all three knocked themselves out trying to run Smarty into the ground, with all of them finishing out of the money.
And opposing jockeys certainly didn’t do California Chrome any favors by keeping him pinned down on the inside, where he was always uncomfortable and did his poorest running. And getting stepped on at the start by a longshot didn’t help, as he grabbed himself pretty severely and took a good chunk off the back of his leg.
Incidents like that are unavoidable, but with so many things that can go wrong in a mile and a half race, you want to at least give a horse the best trip possible and not hamper his chances, especially because of an unfamiliarity with the track. Espinoza is a great rider who knows his horse. He may get beat by a fresher horse peaking at the right time; that is often unavoidable. But he cannot under any circumstances let the racetrack beat him.