06/02/2011 4:31PM

In Belmont Stakes, pace is key to victory

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Barbara D. Livingston
Victory Gallop (11) gets up in the last stride to deny Real Quiet the Triple Crown in 1998.

So what’s the best way to win the Belmont?

Whether a Triple Crown is on the line or not, pace strategy and tactics are usually a key element of the Test of the Champion. This is especially true when prospective contenders have contrasting running styles, as will be the case if Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Nehro all make the race.

One horse goes to the front and the others try to catch up. It is the very essence of horse racing, and it can also be one of the most perplexing and counter-intuitive aspects of a race like the Belmont, given the scope of the task at hand. The first instinct is to favor the Silky Sullivan-type closers who lie in ambush in the early going and swoop past the exhausted leaders in the stretch. Anyone who has set eyes on the sheer vastness of Belmont Park’s main track, commonly referred to as Big Sandy, would initially deem that the most prudent course of action.

“It’s such an enormous circumference that even the horses get lost,” said Kent Desormeaux, who had a four-length lead with Real Quiet in midstretch of the 1998 Belmont only to be denied a Triple Crown in the very last stride by Victory Gallop.

Second-guessers had a field day with Desormeaux’s aggressive middle move in that race, but although Victory Gallop came from next to last to nail him, it took arguably the best ride of Gary Stevens’s career to do it.

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“It’s easy to get lost,” Stevens said. “I always thought of myself as a patient rider, but I had to be even more patient at Belmont Park.”

For well over a century, historical accounts suggest the Belmont demands a delicate balance of speed and stamina, but that speed tends to be underrated. Consider the first narrative chart account of a Belmont Stakes:

“Start good. Won in a gallop. Hamburg and Bowling Brook set a hot pace. Hamburg could never outrun Bowling Brook, though he had his head in front for a brief period in the backstretch. Hamburg was all out at the end of seven furlongs. Bowling Brook was romping at the finish. Hamburg was eased up at the last furlong.”

That was back in 1898, when the Belmont was a clockwise 1 3/8 miles at Morris Park in the Bronx, but speed has been a potent weapon as the race has evolved.

In 1905, Tanya won the first edition run at Belmont Park. The chart says she “ . . . was shot right along from the start and, forcing a terrific early pace, the race quickly resolved itself into a procession, shook off her nearest attendant . . . and just lasted the journey.”

It should be noted the distance was 10 furlongs, so history would not remember the filly as favorably had the race been at the present-day trip.

Sir Barton was entered in the Kentucky Derby as a maiden to be a sacrificial rabbit for a more highly regarded stablemate. But after winning the Derby and the Preakness – and then tuning up with a score in the Withers in between – he became the first Triple Crown winner after pressing the early pace in the Belmont and taking the lead on the backstretch.

Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner by famously going to the lead and simply refusing to let Alydar get by in 1978.

In between Sir Barton and Affirmed, a number of horses you may have heard of were front-running Belmont winners: Man o’ War, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Bold Forbes, Seattle Slew.

Using Affirmed as an arbitrary line of demarcation, the horse on the lead after a mile has prevailed in nine of the last 32 editions, but the trend seems to have shifted a bit. Consider that:

• From 1979 to 1991, if your horse was in front after the opening mile, it was better than a 50-50 proposition to hold on. Seven of 13 winners fit that profile, including Conquistador Cielo, Swale and Danzig Connection – three of Woody Stephens’s five consecutive Belmont winners from 1982-86.

• Since then, however, only two of the last 19 winners led after a mile – Point Given (2001), probably the best modern-day horse not to win a Triple Crown, and Da’ Tara (2008), who wired the field as the rank outsider while 3-10 favorite Big Brown was eased.

It cannot be overemphasized that a considerable element of grayness surrounds any sort of cut-and-dried look at running styles in the Belmont. Exhibit A is Touch Gold, who led through the opening half-mile under Chris McCarron, dropped back to fourth while Wild Rush and Silver Charm went at it down the backstretch, and swept past on the far outside in the stretch in order to avoid an eye-to-eye confrontation with Silver Charm, who was known as a tenacious in-fighter.

“Unless it’s too fast a pace, I think speed holds up pretty well,” said McCarron, who also rode Danzig Connection.

Only one thing is certain. No matter what running style a horse has, something must be saved for the end. A timely analogy is the fate of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had the lead on the final turn of the recent Coca Cola 600, the longest race of the Nascar season, only to run out of gas.