The quarter mile from the start of the Belmont Stakes to the first turn is some of the rarest Earth in all of horse racing.
Of the 6,253 races on the Belmont Park main track from 2001 through May 31, 2012, only 24 (.384% or two out of 521) were run at 1 1/2 miles, or one complete circuit around “Big Sandy.”
In May alone, there were 45 races at six furlongs, or half the distance of the Belmont, but common does not mean easier, and Belmont Park can be a tough place to ride regardless of experience, though retired Racing Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said that Mario Gutierrez would do well to ride at Belmont before the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Gutierrez will be aboard Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another as J. Paul Reddam’s colt attempts to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978. Before Derby and Preakness weekends, Gutierrez had not ridden at either Churchill Downs or Pimlico Race Course, respectively, but there is no track in the United States like Belmont with its 1 ½-mile circumference and big, sweeping turns.
Gutierrez, 25, does not have any mounts on Wednesday or Thursday, but he is named on five horses Friday, including Boxeur Des Rues in the Brooklyn Handicap, which like the Belmont Stakes, is at 1 ½ miles on the main track. Two of his other mounts that day are on the turf.
“The Brooklyn mount will help him the most because it’s at 1 1/2 miles, and the strangeness and uniqueness of the Belmont for jockeys is that we don’t do 1 1/2 miles on the main track very often, and we certainly don’t do it around one lap,” Bailey said. “But really, any of those races will help him better than none at all.”
Even though Gutierrez will not be riding on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, he will get a feel for the track courtesy of retired jockey Richard Migliore, a winner of 997 races on Belmont’s main track. The pair will tour the track together, and Migliore’s advice will sound similar to Bailey’s.
“I doubt (Gutierrez) needs much help; he rides extremely well,” Migliore said. “He seems to have a lot of patience, which is good because the big thing with the 1 1/2-mile track is that when you get to the second turn, you have about five furlongs to run whereas on a mile track it’s less than half a mile.
“You have to be conscious that when you get to the turn, it’s not time to lean forward just yet, and if you don’t ride here consistently it’s easy to get lost a little bit because of how big the track is.”
Migliore and Gutierrez were going to tour the track on horseback with Migliore piloting multiple Grade 1 winner and I’ll Have Another’s “pony” Lava Man, but the retired jockey’s doctor gave the ride “too much flak.”
Come 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday, I’ll Have Another will either be the 12th American Triple Crown winner or the 12th horse since Affirmed to fail to make eleven a dozen.
One of the more common excuses among the 11 who have failed is jockey error.
Whether you agree with those sentiments or not, jockeys have as much riding on their backs as the horses do. One bad decision can cost a horse the race, or in I’ll Have Another’s case, the Triple Crown and immortality.
“He’s done almost everything right so far,” Bailey said of Gutierrez. “I said ‘almost’ because I thought he may have been a little over confident and left I’ll Have Another with too much to do in the Preakness. If he comes up a nose short, I think a lot of people would have questioned his ride, but he obviously knows his horse, and it’s tough to fault what he’s done on him so far.”
Bailey had a front row seat for the foiled bids of both Real Quiet in 1998 and Smarty Jones in 2004. Bailey was aboard Grand Slam in the former and Eddington in the latter. Neither threatened for the win but both were an early pace presence.
“A lot of Belmonts have been lost because jockeys moved too soon,” Bailey said. “In 1998, I couldn’t understand why Kent (Desormeaux) was blowing by me so early in the race.
“In 2004, I moved early because (Smarty Jones)went the first half-mile in :48, and I don’t care what race it is, I’m not letting a favorite like that go unchallenged. We didn’t win the race (Eddington finished fourth), but we wouldn’t have won anyway if we didn’t challenge a slow pace.”
Of the 10 named riders for this year’s Belmont (Guyana Star Dweej’s connections have yet to name a jockey), only John Velazquez and Mike Smith have won the race, and Velazquez, who will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame this year, has won more 1 1/2-mile races on Belmont’s main track since 2001 than any other jockey with four. He rides Kentucky Derby second choice Union Rags in this year’s race.
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