05/31/2012 2:55PM

Hovdey: Belmont Stakes security may be over the top


According to the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, the only parimutuel horse race for the forseeable future that merits a heightened level of security in order to protect the investment of the public’s wagering dollars is the 11th race on Saturday, June 9, at Belmont Park.

This would be the 144th running of the $1 million Belmont Stakes, which clearly is a race of more widespread interest than, say, the $50,000 Susan B. Anthony Handicap, to be run the same afternoon at the New York upstate track at Finger Lakes, or even the $500,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap, which is the race before the Belmont Stakes.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

With Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another attempting to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, scrutiny is naturally high, just as it was for the Triple Crown attempts of War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown over the past decade.

It would be comforting to think that this year it is no different, and that great care and consideration is taken every time a Triple Crown is on the line. Unfortunately, circumstances suggest that the last-minute decision to change prerace procedures for the Belmont was inspired not by evidence that security for recent Belmonts had been lax, but by the onslaught of publicity over the ongoing battle between the governor of New York and the New York Racing Association, complicated further by microscopic scrutiny of the record of Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another.

No one mentioned that the welfare of the horses running in the Belmont Stakes was of particular concern. But maybe it’s not a bad idea for the horses running in the Belmont to be sequestered three days before the race and for access to them to be highly restricted and closely monitored.

Then again, maybe it is. Ask Bill Mott or John Gosden about their first encounter with a detention barn at the 1987 Arlington Million, when all the runners were required to gather earlier in the day. Mott trained Theatrical, while Gosden had Sharood.

“The barn was hot and badly ventilated,” Gosden recalled. “We tried fans but they didn’t do much good. At one point I looked over at Theatrical and thought, ‘Well, we don’t have to worry about him.’ ”

Mott was beside himself.

“Theatrical got in there and completely fell apart,” he recalled, years after the fact. “I mean, the sweat was just pouring off him. At one point he just flat sat down in the stall. I was afraid he would colic, or tie up, or something.”

The idea of requiring prerace detention facilities tends to rise and fall like hemlines. California uses the security barn as punishment for trainers who spike a high carbon dioxide level, placing every one of their runners in detention the day before a race for 30 days. (Historical footnote: Lava Man, I’ll Have Another’s headline grabbing companion, won the 2006 Hollywood Gold Cup after being held in detention rather than his regular stall in Doug O’Neill’s barn.)

New York officials abandoned their fling with day-of, full-card sequestration in 2010 because it seemed to be doing more harm than good, because it was getting expensive, and because the press and public no longer seemed to care. Facilities were sometimes makeshift and no two horses reacted the same to the change in routine.

At Belmont Park at least, the detention area appears benign – from the outside anyway, where the media is kept at bay. As far as the particulars of the 2012 Belmont Stakes detention policy, trainer John Shirreffs wishes they had been in place when he took Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo to the Belmont in 2005.

“It was 11 o’clock the day of the race,” Shirreffs said. “He’d just finished his breakfast and laid down when they said it was time to take him to the detention barn. As soon as he got there they wanted to see him jog. Then they wanted to see horses from the other races jog, and they were jogging right there in front of his stall. He never was able to settle down it was so hectic.

“We actually requested that they put all the Belmont horses in one barn when we got there, so we wouldn’t have to move again on the day of the race,” Shirreffs said. “When you have to move barns it’s always an issue, but three days is probably enough time to get settled in.”

Some horses, of course, can get used to just about anything. It should be noted that Afleet Alex, who spread-eagled the 2005 Belmont field, lived in four different stalls that week, moving from his Delaware home to Belmont’s Barn 14 and then Barn 5 before arriving at the detention barn the day of the race.

In England horses spend hours on the road travelling from training yards to race courses, where they pass the day in an unfamiliar stall before running that afternoon. Japan is highly restrictive not only with horses, but jockeys as well. And in Australia, these American eyes bugged at the sight of the entire inventory of the day’s contestants lolling in open air stalls in full view of wandering patrons, like gallery exhibits.

The fact that the 2012 Manhattan Handicap, run an hour or so before the Belmont Stakes, could be populated by horses trained by some of the same trainers who have horses running in the Belmont provides one of those head-cocking “Huh?” moments for people with a nose for hypocrisy.

Yes, the Belmont is a special event, with a Triple Crown on the line and an unusual level of attention coming from people who have never before witnessed a horse race. But racing regulators are supposed to regulate the sport, and the sport neither begins nor ends with the 11th race at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 9.