06/06/2016 3:30PM

Slower pace puts closers closer in Belmont

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Dale Romans expects closer Cherry Wine to be closer to the pace in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Closers don’t win the Belmont Stakes. So goes second-level thinking these days in horse racing’s hive-mind. Like the debunked myth of tight turns at Pimlico in the Preakness, the oversimplified notion suggesting that the 1 1/2-mile Belmont favors late-rallying horses who have run out of ground at shorter distances has been kicked to the curb.

“In a 1 1/2-mile race, you need to be closer to the pace,” trainer Dale Romans, who has Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine for Saturday’s Belmont, said on a recent conference call. “A lot of people would think it’d be a deep closers’ race because you go farther. Woody Stephens used to say it’s a speed horse’s race because they’re all getting tired.”

Win five straight Belmonts like Stephens did between 1982 and 1986 and your take on the Triple Crown’s third jewel carries weight. But here’s the thing: Closers do win the Belmont Stakes. Seven of the last 20 Belmont winners, in fact, could be categorized as closers. Far rarer than the closing winner is the true front-end Belmont winner, and when American Pharoah led all the way in winning the Belmont a year ago, he became just the second such horse, along with Da’ Tara, since the Stephens-trained Swale in 1984.

But do notice that Romans added the important distinction “deep” to the category of “closer,” and this much is true. Deep closers almost never win the Belmont, but part of the reason for that is there are so few truly deep closers in the race. The Derby and the Preakness often unfold at a supercharged tempo – like both races this year – but not the Belmont.

“There’s the human element of the race,” said jockey Kent Desormeaux. “Every rider knows you’re going a mile and a half. No one’s in a hurry. Everyone knows they have to save something for the finish, so generally speaking, the pace is moderate.”

Desormeaux ought to know. Fourteen times during a long career he’s ridden 1 1/2-mile dirt races at Belmont. He’s won the Belmont Stakes once, with Summer Bird in 2009, but more memorably lost it in 1998, when Victory Gallop nailed Real Quiet to deny a Triple Crown. On Saturday, Desormeaux will get a leg up from this brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, on Exaggerator, who will be heavily favored to win the Belmont despite being a closer. Closers, too, are the majority of the other Belmont contenders – Suddenbreakingnews, Brody’s Cause, Creator, Cherry Wine, and Lani.

But when trying to visualize the shape of the Belmont, don’t use the Kentucky Derby, a race all the Belmont closers contested, as a blueprint.

“Very close for Giacamo,” track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed, surprised to see the come-from-the-clouds Kentucky Derby winner stalking the Belmont pace in 2005. Again the very next year: “Steppenwolfer a bit closer than usual,” came the call down the Belmont backstretch as the horse who had rallied from 18th in the Derby raced less than seven lengths behind the leader.

No wonder Giacamo was so much nearer the Belmont pace: The half-mile split in the Derby had been 45.38 seconds, but in the Belmont, it was 48.62. That’s a difference of almost 20 lengths, and the pace in 2005 wasn’t especially slow either. The Belmont leader in the last 20 years has run an opening quarter-mile a little faster than 24 seconds and the first half a couple of ticks slower than 48. The 20-horse Derby this year had a half-mile split of 45.72 seconds, at which point Suddenbreakingnews raced 19th, 27 lengths behind. But with roughly half as many rivals as in the Derby, and with none of the front-runners there racing Saturday, don’t be surprised if even Suddenbreakingnews proves capable of keeping up.

“I don’t know if it’s changing his style so much as that he’ll just be running the same sort of fractions he’s been running in his previous races,” trainer Donnie Von Hemel said.

Romans expects both of his horses to stick much closer to the leaders, Cherry Wine especially, whom he said might not be far off the pace. Indeed, there are few candidates to go much faster than 48 seconds to the half Saturday, but a moderate-to-slow pace does not necessarily equate to a race dominated by the pacesetters. The 2007 Belmont is instructive here. The race had the slowest half-mile split, 50.14, of any contemporary Belmont, but quality easily overcame a tactical disadvantage that day, with Rags to Riches, who had one horse beat on the backstretch, just nipping Curlin, who stalked the slow pace.

Those two great horses flew home, defying Stephens’s contention that everyone tires in the Belmont, but Stephens mainly was right. The average final quarter-mile in the last 20 years is not much under 26 seconds, a true war of attrition, and what made American Pharoah’s front-running tour de force last year so exemplary was his final quarter-mile in 24.32 seconds, finishing off a last half in 48.66, nearly three seconds faster than the 20-year standard. Da’ Tara, by comparison, required nearly 52 seconds to run a final half in his 2008 shocker.

There simply were no closers good enough to get Da’ Tara that day, and the closers don’t often finish especially fast either, in great part because they’ve already hit peak performance making a winning move between the mile and 1 1/4-mile markers. Look back at Belmont charts and you’ll see closing winners like Jazil (2006) and Afleet Alex (2005) lingering near the back of the pack down the long Belmont backstretch, but by the time they hit the second turn, they’re already rolling. Much rarer have been winners like Victory Gallop, who still raced fifth with more than a quarter-mile left.

The truth about this year’s Belmont favorite is this: Exaggerator won the Santa Anita Derby and finished second in the Kentucky Derby by employing deep-closing tactics and was only a little closer when he won the Preakness, but in February, he ran a half-mile in less than 45 seconds while pressing the pace in the seven-furlong San Vicente, and he won the 1 1/16-mile Delta Downs Jackpot on a bullring oval by pressing and leading on a decent gallop. Exaggerator can play the part of deep closer but doesn’t have to.

“That’s in direct relation to his versatility,” Keith Desormeaux said. “He can be on the lead if we need him to be. Of course, we don’t want that. It doesn’t matter if we’re two off the lead or 20 off as long as Exaggerator is comfortable.”

Being comfortable means adapting to whatever pace unfolds Saturday, but Kent Desormeaux, having taken plenty of full-lap tours of the massive Belmont oval, knows he has to guard against the very thing a good horse has been trained to do.

“They get to a particular point on the racetrack and they take off whether you ask them or not, that apex of the turn where jockeys are usually asking them for their life,” Desormeaux said. “At Belmont, you still have so far left to go there.”

It will be fine if Exaggerator is moving forward at that point, picking off horses under his own energy, as long as the pace remains reasonable. You can sense listening to Desormeaux talk that his thoughts are returning to 1998, when Real Quiet missed the Triple Crown by a nose. While Victory Gallop went steadily along, Real Quiet attacked into a fourth quarter-mile in 24.11 seconds, one of the fastest fourth quarters in Belmont history.

“In this race, when you think it’s time to go, it’s not,” Desormeaux said.