Belmont is no joy ride for jockeys

By Richard Rosenblatt
Associated Press / June 4, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Belmont Stakes can be cruel to jockeys.

Just ask Kent Desormeaux. Or Stewart Elliott. Or Calvin Borel. Or the dozens of other riders seeking glory in the final leg of the Triple Crown, only to lose their way and come up short at cavernous Belmont Park.

The 1 1/2-mile Belmont is a one-lap endurance test over the longest and widest dirt racetrack in North America. To have a chance at winning, many top jockeys offer a single piece of advice: Don’t get lost.

“This track can be very deceiving,’’ said John Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont aboard Rags to Riches and will be riding Fly Down in tomorrow’s race. “You have to know where you are. Sometimes, it isn’t easy.’’

Desormeaux learned his lesson in 1998. The Hall of Famer made his move too early aboard Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet and was caught by Victory Gallop, a stride short of a Triple Crown sweep.

“I think Real Quiet fell into the far turn and took me racing when it was premature,’’ said Desormeaux, who won his first Belmont last year aboard Summer Bird, benefiting from an early move by Borel aboard Derby winner Mine That Bird. “It’s such an enormous circumference that even the horses get lost.’’

Desormeaux doesn’t have a mount for tomorrow’s race, so Velazquez and Alan Garcia are the only riders in a field of 12 3-year-olds with a Belmont win. Garcia won in ’08 with Da’ Tara and will be aboard Stately Victor.

Velazquez has been riding at Belmont for 20 years, and feels he knows the track as well as anyone. A big hurdle, he says, is understanding the location of the pole markers around the track that indicate the distance to the finish line in eighths-of-a-mile increments.

At most tracks, horses are passing the 3/8ths pole when they make the run into the far turn. At Belmont, that point on the track is the half-mile pole. It’s a big difference.

“You’ve got to know where the poles are, and you also should ride the racetrack to get familiar with it,’’ Velazquez said.

Three-time Belmont winner Gary Stevens remembers being awed the first time he showed up at Belmont.

“It’s easy to get lost,’’ the retired Hall of Fame rider said. “It’s easy to believe you’re going slower than what you really are. It can fool you into thinking that you have less ground to go than you do. I always thought of myself as a patient rider, but I knew I had to be even more patient at Belmont Park.’’

Of course, with so much riding on a race like the Belmont, jockeys aboard the favorites sometimes feel more pressure to win and often wind up making poor decisions.

Elliott rode Smarty Jones to a perfect record entering the 2004 Belmont and appeared a sure bet to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But the rider with little experience at Belmont called on Smarty Jones far too early and was run down in the final 70 yards by Birdstone.