VIENNA, Va ., June 6, 2012 — Possibly the least known of the Triple Crown racing sites, the Belmont Racetrack, located at Elmont, a Long Island suburb of Hempstead, N.Y., has many superlatives which should make it better known, at least to those who follow racing.
Belmont comprises more acreage than any of the other tracks, located on 430 acres of land, and after all of these years, remains surrounded by lush ancient trees in a well-landscaped park setting. It seems that commercial or industrial venues have not been allowed to encroach on the grand old lady of racing.
Not far from Belmont’s track is the place where the first horserace was held in America in 1665, making the old Oakland Race Track in Louisville, Ky. take a back seat, since it only came about in 1832, as well as the Woodlawn racecourse that’s there.
The Belmont is the longest dirt track in North America, making it the perfect venue for the third leg of the Triple Crown race. At 1-1/2 miles long it is a true test of the three-year old colts. Anyone who thinks that those small, incremental differences in race lengths are immaterial never watched the three races sequentially. With the exception of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and a couple of others, the average racehorse, even outstanding ones, have a hard time maintaining the speed for that distance.
Plus the sheer size of the track is intimidating. It is a full 100 feet wide, in comparison with Pimlico’s 70 feet; even Churchill Downs’ width is only 79-80 feet. The starting area itself is 150 feet wide and situated a good distance from the grandstand that can accommodate about 100,000 fans. The scale of the place, as one equine writer wrote, “is like no other track you’ve ever seen.”
It has more barns (64) than Churchill Downs (47) or Pimlico, and they can accommodate about 2,000 horses. Fortunately they will not all be there on Saturday. (Pimlico representatives did not know how many barns they had.)
The size and length of the track favors strong horses that can run the distance and still have something left as they come thundering down the homestretch. While all eyes had originally been pointed towards Bob Baffert’s colt Bodemeister, who missed the Derby prize by a length and a half and then lost to I’ll Have Another, Doug O’Neill’s shining star, in the Preakness as well, though only by a neck, the decision was made not to take Bodemeister up North, so he will not be the pace setter in this race.
None Since Affirmed in 1978
Since no horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, each year’s track season brings the question of “Will this be the year?” The truth is that few horses have both the endurance factor and the speed to take home the prestigious prize. And there are many detractors who feel that while breeding faster and bigger horses, those fine animals run on the same spindly legs, making injury and death a constant lingering specter.
No one who saw Edgar Prado pull up Barbaro in the Preakness due to a break in or around the sesamoid bone and two others in 20 places, resulting in the horse’s euthanasia after months of treatment and surgeries, or who saw the filly Eight Belles fall fatally injured as she crossed the finish line, can doubt that somewhere, somehow, we have asked too much of these noble animals. It remains a constant crapshoot that whoever races these brutal races may be next on the list.
Still we go into each Triple Crown race, particularly the Belmont, hoping for a three-race champion, whose healthy win may lead him to producing expensive and valuable progeny as long as he remains in the breeding business. We still see an occasional horse come around who is the putative son or grandson of Seattle Slew.
Finally the Favorite
With Bodemeister out of the running, the hope is that I’ll Have Another will finally get the respect he is due. Post-position drawing on June 6 will tell the tale, that luck-of-the-draw aspect that spells winners and losers in advance, it seems. Dullahan, trained by Dale Romans and ridden by Javier Castellano will be back in the running, and Union Rags, Michael Matz’s horse, is supposed to be a starter as well. A jockey familiar with the Belmont, John Velazquez, will be riding him, replacing Kent Desormeaux.
Mario Gutierrez and Paul Redmann feel confident that I’ll Have Another will come well prepared for the Belmont, thanks to trainer Doug O’Neill’s talents.
However, O’Neill is facing dosing charges in California, but the timing and alleged offense almost begs the question. Charged with excessive levels of TCO2 (carbon dioxide) in the horse Argenta’s blood, which is supposed to enhance performance and add strength, the race in question took place almost two years ago, and the horse in question finished EIGHTH. If the Board’s intent was to detract from O’Neill as a trainer, and distract attention on his current horse, it certainly has not worked.
Also the nasal strips used by many horses including I’ll Have Another are forbidden at the Belmont, and it is unknown how that may affect Another’s performance or any of the pack, for that matter.
Problems Began on the Turnpike
The initial ride from Baltimore to Elmont was not without issues as a major traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike (welcome to New York) occurred and what should have been a four-hour plus trip ended up six and one-half hours. The horse settled in well, however, and his workouts have been excellent thus far.
As if that weren’t enough, his regular exercise rider, Jonny Garcia, had his arrival delayed while getting visa issues worked out so Another had to get used to substitute riders until last Tuesday when Garcia arrived.
The final upset came on Thursday, May 31, when a fractious filly, Isleta, dumped her rider and took off, running between I’ll Have Another and the rail. The outriders were able to catch and settle her, and the Derby/Preakness winner was not touched. Still it was a moment of near cardiac arrest for owner, trainer, and everyone else involved.
Though Bodemeister will not be in the running, Bob Baffert’s presence will be felt with Paynter, who has been described as a “talented late-bloomer with dangerous front-running speed.” Bodemeister will be lounging in the shade somewhere, but Paynter had better be on his game if he wants to beat the horse who for the first time is the favorite.
Others Who Will Make the Race
Subject to last minute changes or scratches, newcomers to the race will be Atigun, Five Sixteen (ridden by Rosie Napravnik), Giyana Star Dweej, Optimizer (a D. Wayne Lukas colt), Ravelo’s Boy, Street Life, and Unstoppable U. for a early total of 11 horses. Alpha was scratched when he developed a 103 fever last week.
All bets will be off when the drawing is held on Wednesday, June 6, for postpositions. Once the field is lined up at the gate, then it will all be up to horses and riders at the 144th Belmont Stakes and the third leg of the Triple Crown.
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