Lessons of the Past 37 Years: Don’t Move Too Soon

Since Affirmed beat Alydar yet again to take the Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses have come to Belmont with a chance to join the most exclusive club in Thoroughbred Racing.  Now its American Pharoah’s turn.  In the words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  American Pharoah has a lot of take-aways from the last 13 failed Triple Crown attempts.  It might be June, but for American Pharoah, school is in session.

It’s been twenty-six years, it’s just one furlong away…

Those words echoed over the roar of 120,000 fans as Smarty Jones held on grimly down the Belmont stretch, futilely trying to hold off a surging Birdstone as Stewart Elliot came to the realization that he had no more horse and a lot more ground to cover. And it wasn’t to be – the undefeated Smarty Jones was vanquished for the first time in his career, and on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.

Smarty Jones and American Pharoah have some things in common. Both are coming into the Belmont on significant winning streaks, with unblemished three year old records (only American Pharoah’s debut loss keeps him from being undefeated like Smarty). Neither is specifically bred for the American classic distances, but at the same time neither has an unlikely or particularly problematic distance pedigree. Also, both horses had tactical speed and liked to be on or near the lead, but by no means needed to be on the front end. So what can American Pharoah learn from Smarty Jones?

At the risk of stating the obvious, Belmont is big. Like, really big. In fact, whenever I get back to Belmont after going to other tracks, the sheer size of the race course is striking. The track routinely hosts one turn races at distances of a mile and 1/16 and even a mile a 1/8 – unheard of at other North American tracks. The mile and 1/4 start (for races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup) actually on the clubhouse turn. The sheer size of the track probably has its greatest impact in the Belmont Stakes. Most of the horses have never run on the track, and in this day and age, none of the horses have ever run as far as a mile and a half. A lot of the jockeys and trainers are also unfamiliar with the track, and rarely ride horses in races over a mile and a half on dirt or train horses to compete at that distance. The wide sweeping turns can also make it seem as though the rider is much closer to the finish line than is actually the case, and the huge configuration can throw off a horse’s sense of where he is, making him keen to go on with three or four furlongs left to run. All of these factors combine to give the Belmont Stakes its most famous nickname – the Test of the Champion.

So what did Smarty Jones and Stewart Elliott do wrong? As difficult as this was to assess at the moment it was happening, they moved too soon. Other than Smarty Jones, the 2004 Belmont featured three other horses with somewhat reasonable odds: Rock Hard Ten, Purge and Eddington. Every other horse in the field had odds of 25-1 or higher. Sure enough, as soon as the gates opened, all three of those horses went right at Smarty Jones. Purge went to the lead, Rock Hard Ten set up on Smarty’s inside, and Eddington pressed Smarty from the outside. While the first half mile of 48 seconds plus was not particularly fast, Smarty never got a chance to relax – he always had Rock Hard Ten glued to his left side and Eddington, with Jerry Bailey aboard, on his right. Stride for stride those two made Smarty work. He couldn’t get any sort of breather, couldn’t get to the outside of horses and stretch his legs, couldn’t get to the rail and control the pace from that position. But he was better than Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, and much better on that day than Purge, and with more than three furlongs to go, he put those horses away.

Who could blame Stewart Elliott for thinking he had it won at that point? His horse’s main rivals had given it a go, and had come up empty. In fact, as he came out of the turn and hit the top of the lane, Smarty looked like he might win by daylight – that the stretch drive might be nothing more than a coronation for racing’s newest king.

He lets it out a notch

That was Tom Durkin’s call as Smarty Jones left Rock Hard Ten and Eddington in his wake. Smarty Jones opened up by a length and a half, two lengths, eventually building a four length lead. But there was trouble coming from behind. Birdstone, with Edgar Prado on board, was just finding his best stride. Smarty may have been putting away Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, but Birdstone was matching him stride for stride, and eventually was clearly gaining ground.

But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today, the whip is out on Smarty Jones

That was when I had a feeling that history would be denied yet again. Smarty Jones had worked so hard to put away what everyone considered to be his main rivals, and had switched into sixth gear with a full quarter of a mile to go. Problem was, there wasn’t much gas left in the tank, and a horse that was bred to run all day was bearing down.

Birdstone surges past, Birdstone wins

2004 Belmont Stakes

And just like that, the dream was dead. Will American Pharoah be different? Certainly you could see a similar race shape, with horses like Carpe Diem, Materiality and Frosted pressing Pharoah through the first three quarters of the race, setting Mubtaahij or Tale of Verve for a big run coming down the stretch. Certainly there will be no lack of rested, talented horses in New York to try to deny Pharoah the crown. But Pharoah has some significant advantages over Smarty Jones. First, this is the fourth time his trainer, Bob Baffert, has brought a horse to Belmont with a chance for the Triple Crown. People over the past couple weeks have made a big deal about the fact that Baffert is following the same regimen with Pharoah as his prior three failed Triple Crown candidates, but it’s not like those other runners performed poorly: Real Quiet lost by a nose, Silver Charm came in second by 3/4 of a length, and War Emblem lost all chance at the break. Further, Victor Espinoza will be coming to Belmont for the third time with a chance to win the crown. In fact, he was just here last year. Unlike journeyman Stewart Elliott, Pharoah will have the most experienced jockey possible for this specific circumstance in the irons. At the end of the day though, it is likely that Pharoah will have the lead at some point on June 6. He may even have the lead by open lengths. If that is the case, Victor will have to keep his horse under control, and do just what he did in this year’s Preakness – ease off the gas, and get his horse primed for a long, difficult stretch drive to history.

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