Updated on 09/17/2011 11:40AM

It takes a rider like Santos to get a horse to win a marathon

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Jose Santos's familiarity with Belmont and his patience aboard a horse are two key assets.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Belmont Stakes is celebrated as "the test of the champion." It is the final leg of a grueling, three-race series. And it is an anachronism in American racing.

The Belmont is one of only two Grade 1 races on dirt at 1 1/2 miles. The trend in American racing has been toward speed and shorter races. The Jockey Club Gold Cup, for instance, was once a two-mile race. It was 1 1/2 miles through 1989. Then Easy Goer lost the Breeders' Cup Classic, and it was immediately slashed to 1 1/4 miles.

There are still numerous Grade 1 races at 1 1/2 miles on grass, such as the Breeders' Cup Turf, but the strategy for riding turf races - patiently waiting for a quarter-mile dash to the finish - is different from riding on dirt, where the fractions are generally faster.

The Belmont Stakes melds the two. It usually has the faster pace of a dirt race, but it requires a jockey to use some of the patience required in grass races.

Belmont Park itself presents unique challenges. It is the only track in North America whose dirt surface is 1 1/2 miles in circumference. Everything is bigger - the turns, the straightaways. When horses enter the far turn, there is still a half-mile to go. On a track with a one-mile circumference, there are only three furlongs remaining. In the Belmont Stakes, familiarity with Belmont Park's nuances can often mean the difference between victory (Angel Cordero Jr. riding Bold Forbes in 1976) and defeat (Ronnie Franklin on Spectacular Bid in 1979).

Saturday, Jose Santos will ride Funny Cide - the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner - in an attempt to capture the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Santos has been based in New York for most of his career and won the Belmont Stakes in 1999, scoring an upset with Lemon Drop Kid. His experience at the track, and in this unique race, the patience for which Santos is known in turf races, are factors Santos believes will help him.

"When you are riding a mile and a half race, you have to look at your competition twice," Santos said. "Even if you think that your horse will be strong when you go the farther distance, you still have to ride the horse with confidence and make him go that far."

Santos calls his ride on Lemon Drop Kid, who was trained by Scotty Schulhofer, the best of his career. Santos said he was cognizant of trying to keep Lemon Drop Kid behind horses early, fearing that if the colt saw daylight, he would move too soon and not have enough energy for the end of the race.

"I followed some pretty fast horses and kept him behind," Santos said. "I made him win. I could only show him the track for the last half-mile. He was very well trained by Scotty. But riding-wise, I think I made great decisions."

Santos that day was in the opposite position of where he will find himself Saturday. Aboard Lemon Drop Kid, he thwarted a Triple Crown bid by Charismatic.

"I felt bad I spoiled the Triple Crown, but I didn't feel bad that I won," Santos said. "I wanted to win. I'm based in New York. It was the highlight of my career at that time."

Santos said a key factor in winning a race of this length is the temperament of the horse. If a jockey is forced to spend too much time fighting his mount in an attempt to get him to relax early, he might not have enough left at the end of the race, Santos said.

"You've got to have a cooperative horse," Santos said. "He has to be well trained for his temperament. It helps if he can set the pace, or lay in just behind the leaders, and do it easily. If he gets tired at the eighth pole, no matter how strong I am, I can't help him.

"I can help him save ground, and motivate him, but if we get to the stretch and he gets tired, there's nothing I can do. I can't stop, get off, put him on my back, and carry him."

Barclay Tagg, the trainer of Funny Cide, said he will keep instructions to a minimum for Santos.

"I can't say 'I hope you sit third,' and then something goes wrong at the start and he has to adjust and you hope the jock didn't listen to you," Tagg said. "You've got to have a rider that can make the decisions.

"Jose's clicking with that horse now. They've got a good rapport. He's done good so far. We just have to insist he keeps on doing it."