06/06/2011 6:13PM

6f + 6f = The Belmont


The unusual mile-and-a-half (12 furlongs) distance of the Belmont Stakes is effectively two consecutive races at six furlongs, the most common distance in American racing. One might think that what we call speed horses and front-runners would run the race's first six furlongs faster than the second, and that stretch-runners and "closers" would be running faster at the end than in the beginning.

In fact, almost every Belmont Stakes winner is decelerating during the second half of the race, even those we think of as storming home to dramatic stretch-running victories.

As the chart below shows, 35 of the last 40 Belmont winners have run their first six furlongs faster than the second six furlongs, by an average of right around two full seconds (12 lengths). And remember, this is not a comparison between the leader's time after six furlongs and the final time of the race, but between the eventual winner's actual running times for each half of the race.

What was so magnificent about Secretariat's unapproached clocking of 2:24 while winning the 1973 Belmont and Triple Crown was not just the final time itself but that he did it after running the first six furlongs in a blistering 1:09 4/5. The second-fastest opening six furlongs by a Belmont winner in the last 40 years was Bold Forbes's 1:11 1/5 in 1976 -- and it then took him 1:17 4/5 (and every ounce of Angel Cordero's skill and pleading) to get him home first under the wire.

(There was some necessary approximation in this exercise -- times were not recorded in hundredths in DRF charts until 1999, and lengths behind after six furlongs had to be extrapolated from charts and videos in the absence of a six-furlong point of call. So I wouldn't put too much stock in differences of under a length or so in the table below, but the overall patterns are pretty clear.)

It's pretty neat that the fastest first six and fastest second six by a Belmont winner during this span were both recorded by Triple Crown winners: Secretariat's opening 1:09 4/5 in 1973 and Affirmed's come-home 1:12 4/5 in 1978.

The other Belmont winners who ran their second 6f faster than their first 6f are an interesting quartet: Little Current (2.80 seconds faster), the filly Rags to Riches (2.62 faster), Temperence Hill (1.80 faster) and Victory Gallop (0.60 faster), who nailed Real Quiet at the wire to deprive him of the Triple Crown by the smallest margin ever.

Finally, Swale was the only Belmont winner since at least 1971 to run identical halves of the race: He led all the way, running each six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 for a final time of 2:27 1/5.