06/09/2011 1:17PM

Stevens recalls hits, misses as a marathon man

Barbara D. Livingston

Time for the Belmont Stakes, always a good day for horse racing, whether or not there is a Triple Crown on the line. New Yorkers, grown blasé toward racing, still flock to the track in support of their classic, taking full pleasure in a setting that drips with history.

Much of that history has been made in the Belmont Stakes, but that is not what sets the race apart. Nor is it the choice of song played during the post parade, nor the brand of flowers draped over the withers of the winner. More than anything else, it is the distance of the Belmont Stakes that makes the race a compelling event.

The 1 1/2 miles is foreign territory, rendered anachronistic by traditional race course configurations and the growing limitations of the breed. The Belmont runners are being asked to do something they probably will never do again. And while there are any number of North American 1 1/2-mile races on the grass, climaxed by the annual running of Breeders’ Cup Turf, those races are reserved for a subdivision of horses drawn from an ever-shrinking domestic pool. As far as main track races requiring 12 unforgiving furlongs, the Belmont Stakes is in a class by itself.

It also translates well international, considering the world’s stage is one long feast of 1 1/2-mile events. All of them are on grass, but that’s where the game is played. The derbies of England and Ireland are 1 1/2 miles. France’s storied Arc de Triomphe is 1 1/2 miles, as is its British counterpart, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. And when the Japanese created their Japan Cup there was not much discussion about the conditions. It had to be 1 1/2 miles.

Gary Stevens, a three-time winner of the Belmont, was asked if he might guide the reader through the unique 1 1/2-mile experience, seeing as he had done it so well before. Presumably, Stevens also will be lending that expertise to his role as analyst alongside host Tom Hammond on NBC’s Saturday afternoon coverage of the race.

It was on Wednesday afternoon, not long after Belmont post positions had been drawn, when Stevens stepped outside the NBC production trailer near the top of the Belmont Park stretch to take a phone call and noticed he had a pretty good view of the quarter pole. Fond memories ensued, highlighted by his 1998 Belmont win with Victory Gallop, who nailed Real Quiet on the wire to spoil a Triple Crown.

“At the five-sixteenths I didn’t think I had a shot in hell,” Stevens recalled. “But then when Real Quiet straightened out at the quarter pole and swapped to his right lead, he started wandering around like he did in the Preakness. At that point I had a good feeling I was going to reel him in.”

Stevens won his first Belmont in 1995 aboard Thunder Gulch.

“At the quarter pole I was sitting on tilt, only about four lengths off the lead,” he said. “I had a ton of horse.”

Stevens had a ton and then some in 2001, when he arrived at the quarter pole with Point Given, who drew off to win by more than a dozen lengths. Stevens, however, remembers it as a professionally humbling moment, haunted by the 1997 Belmont when Touch Gold caught Stevens and Silver Charm late, ending their Triple Crown dream.

“There’s a picture of me at the finish, standing up and almost turned around with what looks like shock,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t shock. It was embarrassment.”

As Point Given left his field through the stretch, Stevens uncharacteristically continued to keep his head down and ride hard.

“I swear I heard something coming,” Stevens said. “Point Given was only running about 80 percent, and I’m having a flashback to Silver Charm. So I’m knifing him, man. Really getting after him. It turned out to be the wind popping my shoulder number against my silks. We don’t use them in California, and I thought it sounded like hoofbeats. I had no idea I was that far in front, and there I was asking him for more when I didn’t need to. When I figured out what it was my first thought was, ‘You jackass.’ ”

In addition to his three Belmonts, a Breeders’ Cup Turf, and a Dubai Sheema Classic, the Stevens 1 1/2-mile trophy case includes the 1991 Japan Cup with Golden Pheasant for Charlie Whittingham and the 1999 Duke of Edinburgh Stakes at Royal Ascot on Blueprint for The Queen. He also finished third in both the 1999 Epsom Derby and Irish Derby aboard Beat All for Michael Stoute and was fifth in the 2004 Prix du Jockey Club – the French Derby, when it was still run at a mile and a half – on Reefscape for Andre Fabre.

“You think of all those mile and a half races as staying races,” Stevens said. “But you need a horse with brilliant acceleration, too, to get you in and out of spots, as well as a horse with a great mind, so he can switch off at various times during the race.

“One of the fallacies jocks have in riding the Belmont is making it more difficult than it really is,” Stevens went on. “They out-think themselves because of the distance. It’s really no different than the Derby or the Preakness. You very rarely see a horse come from 20 lengths back, for instance.”

Stevens cites Epsom as the most challenging 1 1/2-mile layout he has ever ridden, with its early uphill climb, its steep descent around Tattenham Corner, and its long stretch banked toward the stands. But at least he had a race over the course. It was The Curragh that threw him a real curve.

“I probably felt the most lost in the Irish Derby,” Stevens said. “There’s no outside rail. To get to the starting gate you canter across this open field. I had no sense of where I was or where I was supposed to go, so I figured, ‘When in Rome – or Ireland….’ I followed them to about a quarter-mile from home where the race really starts.”

Stevens had no reason to second-guess his ride on Beat All that day, since Montjeu won by five. It’s actually that 1999 Epsom Derby he would like to try again.

“I went into it thinking I had to be conservative early on,” he said. “Instead, I wish I’d let Beat All use some of his speed going up the hill the first three furlongs. I know he would have switched off for me, and I actually think I could have won the English Derby. As it was, I got caught up behind horses and wasn’t able to let him travel freely turning into the stretch.”

In the end, Stevens and Beat All finished 3 1/4 lengths back of Oath and Kieren Fallon.

Looking back on a 25-year Hall of Fame career of 4,888 wins, during which he rode extensively in Europe and the Far East as well, Stevens concedes he was bound to zig a few times when he should have zagged. Still, he winces at the decision he made when he was but a youth of 24, that cost him a chance at one of the world’s great 1 1/2-mile prizes.

“It was 1987, and I was in France talking to Sheikh Mohammed about a possible contract for 1988,” Stevens said. “While I was there I worked a few horses for Andre Fabre, one of them a colt named Trempolino. Andre asked me to stay and ride him in the Arc de Triomphe, but I said no, I had to get back home to ride a horse in the Pomona Derby the day before for Laz Barrera.”

On the morning of Oct. 4, Stevens was greeted with the news that Trempolino, under Pat Eddery, had won Europe’s most prestigious 1 1/2-mile horse race at odds of 20-1.

“And I didn’t even win the race at Pomona,” Stevens added.

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