Gary West.

West: To the Swift Often Go the Belmont Stakes Spoils

By Gary West/Special to TVG

When horse racing fans refer to the Belmont Park surface as “Big Sandy,” they usually adopt such a doleful tone that they could be talking about Big Quicksandy, as if to suggest this Brobdingnagian racetrack with its demanding surface routinely swallows up favorites and pretenders whole. That’s something to remember as Saturday’s 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes (G1) approaches. Yes, remember Big Quicksandy, but don’t fear it.

The odd, the strange, and the shocking can indeed comprise the Belmont trifecta, as when War Emblem stumbled at the break, Medaglia d’Oro faltered in the stretch and a 70-1 moonshot named Sarava won the 2002 Triple crown finale. This is where, in 2004, the undefeated and charismatic Smarty Jones led into the stretch after disputing the pace and then, with a daylight advantage, took his pursuit of the Triple Crown into deep stretch and then, finally, his lead shrinking, into a tunnel of stupefied silence, the tunnel at the end of the light, he failed to withstand the surge of Birdstone, a fiercely determined colt not much bigger than a hood ornament. 

This is where the great Curlin ran the final quarter-mile in :23.83 seconds, but lost to the filly Rags to Riches; where Big Brown ducked out, dislodged a shoe and ran like it, but only for a while; where Real Quiet drifted and bumped his way down the lane only to lose his claim to the triangular trophy in the final jump; where the relentlessly competitive Silver Charm couldn’t see his rival before it was too late; and where Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin — if his trainer, Bud Delp, is to be believed, and why not? For this is Big Quicksandy and could there be a more plausible explanation for the otherwise inexplicable loss to Coastal?

Yes, the odd, the strange and the shocking can happen here, in part because Belmont Park is unlike any other racetrack and the Belmont Stakes unlike any other race. Jockeys riding here for the first time sometimes seem to get lost, as if they’re walking the streets of Manhattan looking, and make their move at the half-mile marker. But that’s not the way to MoMA. Some horses that excel elsewhere falter here, and others that falter elsewhere excel.

Belmont Park. NYRA Photo

A partial explanation could be entwined with the configuration of the Belmont oval; at 1 1/2 miles, it’s the Big Quicksandy indeed. One-mile ovals, such as Churchill Downs and Pimlico, tend to favor athleticism. What’s essential to winning the Kentucky Derby (G1), for example, is an ability to run the turn, for that’s where the winning move often begins, in the second turn. That’s why Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas would instruct jockeys to make their move when they see the track kitchen, located, yes, near start of the second turn. And that emphasis on athleticism is why the Preakness Stakes (G1) is often a reiteration of the Derby — 36 horses have won both races.

But Belmont Park favors sustained power over turn-running virtuosity. Think of Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, two of the greatest horses of the 1980s. Like water swirling around a drain, Sunday Silence could negotiate the turns of a one-mile track better than any horse in the country, maybe better than any horse in the modern era. At Pimlico, Easy Goer ran by Sunday Silence on the backstretch. But Sunday Silence moved to the lead in the second turn and persevered for the win. But at Belmont Park, where the massive track and sweeping turns neutralized Sunday Silence’s greatest strength, Easy Goer won the final event in famed Triple Crown by eight lengths.

So, yes, remember Big Quicksandy and the demanding 1 1/2 miles, remember all that can happen here, including the odd, the strange, and the shocking. But, most of all, remember this: The Belmont Stakes tends to be more predictable and true-to-form than the other Triple Crown events, and like any race it often goes to the swift.

In the 152-year history of the Belmont, 64 betting favorites, or 42 percent, have won. Saturday’s 2-1 favorite, Essential Quality, has lost only once in his career, and even then, he was probably best. In the Kentucky Derby, he broke outward, bumping a rival, raced three-to-four wide in the first turn and four-to-five wide in the second and still finished just a length behind Medina Spirit, who enjoyed a perfect trip on a speed-favoring surface. Essential Quality moves like an egg beater. But he’s a powerful, determined, champion egg beater.

To hear some talk, you might think the Belmont Stakes were the Iditarod. Stamina and endurance rule, the thinking goes; the 1 1/2-mile distance favors those horses who typically charge from far behind and just miss in shorter races; this is their day to shine. It’s all nonsense, of course. Any examination of the race’s history punctures such assumptions; deep closers and late chargers seldom win the Belmont.

The winner Saturday is more likely to be a stalker or even a speedster. In the last 20 runnings of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles (excluding last year’s, of course, at 1 1/8 miles), six winners were either on the lead or head-and-head with the leader with a half-mile remaining. Three of those winners led virtually from the start. Another eight winners were within two lengths of the lead with a half-mile remaining. Yes, the amazing Birdstone rallied from five lengths back and Summer Bird, in 2009, from six back after the opening mile, but they were exceptions.

And so, although Essential Quality might be the best horse in the field and as the favorite is one of the probable winners Saturday, he won’t be the best bet. Betting success often depends on distinguishing between the best horse and the best bet. Rock Your World is the best bet in the Belmont.

Rock Your World. Benoit Photo.

Hammered from both sides at the start of the Kentucky Derby, Rock Your World never had a chance to even sniff a rose. He had looked like the only horse in a Derby field of talented but unspectacular aspirants who might, just might, become a superstar. But after the debacle of a break, he dropped back immediately and raced very wide around both turns before calling it a day and finishing 17th.

Well, get out the bottle of whiteout and apply a thick stroke to Derby line on his resume. For an indication of his talent, look instead at his Santa Anita Derby (G1), where he got the jump on Medina Spirit, led through lively fractions and drew clear. Rock Your World is, quite simply, faster than his Belmont rivals. Much faster. He’ll dart to an early lead Saturday, and he’ll take the field into the stretch. And possibly much farther. Based on that alone, he has at least a 20-percent probability of winning the Belmont, meaning that at 9-2 (his morning line) he represents a profitable bet.

And his chances for a win could be even greater. Can Rock Your World succeed at the Belmont distance? That’s an essential question for all eight of these horses, and for him it might seem larger than for some of the others. Then again, maybe not. Beyond the wire at Santa Anita, he galloped out with such energy that he was probably 15 lengths in front by the time he was pulled up. Does that mean he’ll handle Saturday’s 1 1/2 miles with aplomb? Not necessarily, but it suggests the lightly raced colt has only begun to tap into his talent; the Santa Anita Derby, remember, was his first race on the main track after two turf performances.

Hot Rod Charlie is the only horse in the Belmont field with sufficient natural speed to push or challenge Rock Your World early. But why should Flavien Prat send Hot Rod Charlie up to engage Rock Your World when they can enjoy instead a perfect stalking trip? So, Rock Your World cruises clear with Hot Rod Charlie stalking; entering the second turn, Essential Quality moves closer, along with the improving Preakness winner, Rombauer; and Known Agenda offers something down the lane — that’s how Saturday’s Belmont Stakes looks from here, with Rock Your World posing for portraits in the aftermath.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.

TVG Horse racing insider news
TVG Horse racing insider news