- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — The Belmont Park stretch — a k a the “Big Sandy,” has devoured many overeager Triple Crown aspirants with its seemingly endless run to the finish line.

“It’s so wide and the back side looks like a beach and there’s no end to it,” said jockey Steve Cauthen, who won the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed.

Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown requires one final challenge in tomorrow’s 136th Belmont Stakes. Like all things New York, Belmont is gigantic. The 11/2-mile track is the nation’s largest, and one time around constitutes the longest major U.S. stakes. With jockeys used to riding mile and even half-mile tracks, Belmont’s grandeur can fool them into moving prematurely.

The Kentucky Derby means surviving the largest field of the year of nearly 20. The Preakness requires tactical speed. The Belmont is a jockey’s race where riders can outsmart one another. Mistakes in the saddle are often unforgiving. Jockey Kent Desormeaux should know. He fell into the classic trap of mistiming his move off the final turn and because he waited too long, Real Quiet was beaten at the wire to lose the 1998 Triple Crown.

“If the Belmont is more difficult, it’s because of the human element,” Desormeaux said. “There’s too much control by the jockeys. There’s fewer horses, so we know exactly where everybody is. We can manipulate each other’s path much easier in the Belmont. There’s a tremendous amount of luck involved.”

Mostly, the luck runs bad. Ronnie Franklin buried Spectacular Bid’s 1979 Triple Crown hopes with a poor ride coupled with the colt stepping on a safety pin hours earlier. Chris McCarron was boxed inside on the final turn aboard Alysheba to miss the 1987 crown. Gary Stevens misjudged the finish line atop Silver Charm to lose to McCarron aboard Touch Gold in 1997.

Sixteen of the last 22 Belmonts have been won by Hall of Fame riders. Smarty Jones jockey Stewart Elliott never has ridden in the Belmont but has raced over the track. He’ll ride a few mounts today to familiarize himself with the oval.

The last three Triple Crown jockeys — Ron Turcotte, Jean Crugett and Cauthen — all rode regularly at Belmont. However, the trio disagreed whether this was a big advantage.

“There’s no doubt that it’s more comfortable when you’re riding a track regularly,” Cauthen said.

But, Turcotte said, “I really can’t see that it would help all that much. We all know that it’s tough for a horse to come way around on the outside and the far turn to win the race at Belmont Park.”

The pressure can be crippling. Elliott would earn $580,000 by taking the Belmont, along with the status of earning the Triple Crown.

“I don’t think the pressure will be a factor in my performance,” he said. “We’re just going to handle it like we’ve been handling it and do the best we can.”

Smarty Jones trainer John Servis conceded yesterday that Elliott will be tested more in this race.

“This is the race where Stewart has to shine, because there are eight other horses that have nothing to lose,” he said.

Elliott’s Derby ride drew raves from fellow riders for his patience. He was praised for not pushing Smarty Jones in the Preakness despite winning by a record 111/2 lengths. Elliott put away his whip at the top of the stretch. Desormeaux said Elliott and Smarty Jones are in sync.

“You see Stewart sitting in the saddle, and as I watched his hands the horse would progress just off Stewart moving his finger,” Desormeaux said. “We spend mornings trying to put speed into the horses, and our job is to coax that speed and savor it. I saw a horse that was attentive to the jockey’s needs and has tons of speed.”

The Belmont is essentially two races — combining a sprinter’s speed with stamina. Its extraordinary length often causes jockeys to ride unusually slow for the first mile to conserve energy before fully committing midway on the final turn.

Servis remains flexible on Smarty Jones’ pace. If the colt inherits the lead from a timid field, Elliott will slow the early pace to conserve energy. If a rival tries to steal the race with a sharp early lead, Smarty Jones will run a few lengths back until the final turn. Either way, Elliott has to let Smarty Jones run naturally. Desormeaux learned not to fight Real Quiet’s instincts in their nose loss.

“When we fell into the turn at Belmont, he wanted to go and I didn’t let him,” Desormeaux said. “I absolutely had a stranglehold on him to wait from the five-sixteenths [pole] to the three-eighths. He then opened up and thought the race was over and there was this horse coming at me. My depth perception tells me there’s no way to win with the colt from behind. I tried to hinder his path and only got beat a nose. If I had just let Real Quiet be himself I would have been some 30 lengths in front. Maybe I would have won by two, but he would have won. That’s how hard he was pulling.”

Servis would prefer the colt not tire himself needlessly in the final yards if the victory is secure. “If he wins by 20 lengths, I’m not going to be happy with Stewart,” Servis said, “but if he can make history, so be it.”

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