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Updated on 06/02/2014 7:41AM
Jockeys' Triple Crown dreams must survive tough final test
He thought he was home free.
“I’m gonna win the Triple Crown!” jockey Gary Stevens said he thought to himself. He was in the homestretch of the 1997 Belmont Stakes on Silver Charm, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and had put away arch rival Free House. The race, the Triple Crown, was his.
“And then I saw this shadow well away from me,” Stevens recalled. “I knew someone was coming.”
It was Touch Gold, who overtook Silver Charm inside the sixteenth pole – another Triple Crown bid denied.
“I went from the highest high to the lowest low,” Stevens said earlier this week at Santa Anita. “I was depressed for a long time. It was a pretty bad depression.”
One year later, Stevens, a few years away from becoming an actor, cast himself in the role of spoiler. Aboard Victory Gallop, he got up in the very last jump to nose out Real Quiet, who also had won the Derby and the Preakness. Stevens used that race as inspiration for the title of a book he wrote in 2002. The name? “The Perfect Ride.”
“As a rider, you always think you can do something better,” Stevens said. “But that race, I made every right move. I split horses twice. If I don’t, I don’t win.”
Belmont Park is where Triple Crown dreams are realized – 11 times since 1919. And it is where they have gone to die 11 times since 1978, with a 12th bid in 2012 negated by I’ll Have Another’s career-ending injury announced on the eve of the race.
One week from Saturday, California Chrome will be added to the list. But which one? Will he become the 12th Triple Crown winner or the 12th to falter since Affirmed?
California Chrome will make his bid in a race known as the Test of the Champion. And while that moniker was initially applied to the horses attempting to win the last and longest of the Triple Crown races, the Belmont is equally demanding of the jockeys, for there is nowhere in American racing that mimics Belmont Park’s 1 1/2-mile circumference. Opportunities to ride in races that far are growing smaller and smaller.
Distance racing overall has been severely truncated from the late 1970s until now. In 1979, on both turf and dirt, there were 122 races at 1 1/2 miles and another 245 at farther than 1 1/2 miles – including a race like the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita – for a total of 367.
Last year, out of the 46,650 races run in North America, just 75 were run at 1 1/2 miles, with another 35 beyond that distance, a total of 110. That’s a decrease of 70 percent from 1979.
In 2013, there were six 1 1/2-mile stakes run in North America on the main track, one of them on a synthetic surface. Two – the Belmont and the Brooklyn – were run at Belmont Park. Four were graded, but only the Belmont was Grade 1.
In 1978, the year Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner, there surprisingly were an equal number of main-track stakes at 1 1/2 miles, just six. But included in that total were four Grade 1 races – the Belmont, Brooklyn, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Coaching Club American Oaks, all at Belmont Park. There were more opportunities than now to ride in a race at that distance, at that track, at the highest level of competition.
It matters, say those who have been in the trenches.
“It helps to have ridden at Belmont Park,” Steve Cauthen, just 18 when he won the Triple Crown on Affirmed, said earlier this week on a national teleconference. “Most jockeys coming from another track think when you pass the five-eighths, you’ve got to get your horse into the race. It’s premature by two furlongs.”
Stevens said his patient ride on Victory Gallop was the result of having him closer to the pace in the Preakness. He said both he and trainer Elliott Walden agreed to make one run in the Belmont.
“Real Quiet, when he won the Preakness, he was wandering around at the end of the race, lost with the crowd, and even though he won, I didn’t think he finished up. He was preoccupied with the crowd,” Stevens said. “I saw the same thing in the Belmont. He started running around all over the racetrack, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve got a shot.’ I didn’t know who had won at first. It was bittersweet. As a fan, you’re rooting for a Triple Crown, but as a rider, you want to win a classic.”
Stevens said he still blames himself “a little bit” for Silver Charm missing the previous year.
“We ran by Touch Gold, and I thought it was going to be Round 3 of a heavyweight fight with Free House,” he said. “But Free House stopped at the eighth pole. I was between a rock and a hard spot. Looking back, I wish I had waited. [Touch Gold rider Chris] McCarron knew Silver Charm would respond if he felt another horse’s presence, so he kept Touch Gold away from him. He rode a very patient race.”
No one, it seems, has lost the Belmont by moving too late. But for those who moved too soon? The Belmont Park stretch is littered with their tears, even if a Triple Crown is not on the line.
Ron Turcotte, who won the 1973 Triple Crown with Secretariat, blames himself for the Belmont Stakes loss of Preakness winner Tom Rolfe in 1965, nearly 50 years ago.
“I moved a little bit too soon with my horse,” Turcotte said. “I made the lead at the sixteenth pole and got caught on the wire. The horse didn’t lose the race. I did.”
In the fall of 1978, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Affirmed and Seattle Slew met in a match between two Triple Crown winners. Seattle Slew won that battle after a torrid early pace, but he lost the war to Exceller, who nosed out Seattle Slew at the end of the 1 1/2-mile race.
“I’d like to have that ride back,” Angel Cordero Jr., who rode Seattle Slew that day, said in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Cordero’s only Belmont Stakes win came in 1976 aboard the speedy Bold Forbes, who had won the Kentucky Derby but was thought vulnerable at 1 1/2 miles. Bold Forbes had a six-length lead at the eighth pole and just lasted to win by a neck.
Cordero has been roundly praised for his ride over the years, but he said trainer Laz Barrera was “90 percent responsible” for getting Bold Forbes to win.
“I’m not trying to be humble,” Cordero said. “Laz knew what he was doing. He told me before the race, ‘I know you don’t think he can go that far, but ride him like you think he can go that far.’ He was a sprinter. He could go 21 [seconds] and change, 44, 1:08 and change. Laz made him go longer. It was fluky. It won’t happen again.”
Cordero said one of the challenges of riding at Belmont Park is the sheer expanse of the track. It is 50 percent larger than a one-mile track like Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, or Pimlico.
“The mile pole is where the three-quarter pole would be at other tracks,” Cordero said. “It has big, big turns. The track surface is different, very sandy. It’s good when it rains. It gets packed down. But when there’s no rain, it can get loose. There’s a long run down the backstretch. It’s hard to judge if you’re going fast or slow.”
Stevens said he found that long backstretch run disorienting the first times he rode at Belmont Park.
“The first couple of times there I rode in one-turn, 1 1/8-mile races,” Stevens said. “I felt like we were walking the first part of the race. It felt like we went 24, and it turned out we were going 22 and 3, 45 and 4.”
But now, with years of experience, Belmont Park is “my favorite track to ride at,” Stevens said.
“It’s the most fair track in the United States,” he said. “If you’re on the best horse, you have plenty of room to navigate. If you’re on the best horse, the only way you can get beat is jockey error.”
So let me get this right. Commanding Curve, this weeks Social Inclusion, is the brilliant bet to dethrone California Chrome? Ok. A 38-1 shot running past driftwood in the Derby to get second now becomes overbet to the tune of somewhere around 5-1, 9-2 and you brilliant handicappers choose him now? Late to the wedding, early to the funeral. Best wishes.
The ultimate question is: Does Victor wait to make his move and take the chance he will have to catch a horse OR does he move as he did in the Preakness and make them catch him taking the chance he will run out of gas? According to statistics, either way he is not win.
Very interesting point in the article. Only 110 races in North America run at 1 1/2 miles or beyond out of 46,000. Now you know why the Belmont Stakes is a crap shoot. I look at running style to see if a horse keeps trying at 1 1/4 miles to make a pick. But you have to stay with the main pack. Very rarely a deep closer wins
The silver lining to Chrome losing the Belmont is that he gets to race till he's 4 or 5 years old like Real Quiet did.
what got me to buying the racing form online was the free teasers that they use to give for the derby etc. now they are getting greedy. Guaranteed they will get competition from another publisher that will be cheaper.They don't own stats..it is public domain..DRF keep it up and you will lose business
Hey , Gary Stevens, you can't win squat lately without your buzzer.
Ray the Jockey makes a big difference..Look a the ride that ride on Curlin got in the Derby and the ride in the Preekness...He guides the horse and navigates the trip, if you don't believe that then you really don't know any better..Since Victor has been on CC he's undefeated..
being Native American, I find it highly insulting that you can relate horse racing to what the Natives were forced to do in the Trail of Tears. so disrespectful.
Commmanding Curve and Tonalist. 4 n half furlong horses don't win the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown, Real Quiet, all of those that broke their maiden going long are true Triple crown horses.
Maybe if Stevens had been carrying that buzzer he was laughing about on the PETA video he could have zapped old Silver Charm across the finish line in front of Touch Gold?