BY JIM WELLS
It is one-of-a-kind, the only racetrack in the United States with such vast dimensions, awe-inspiring if not intimidating to anyone who has not dealt with its sweeping turns and long straightaways.
Its forbidding size can swallow a horse and rider whole if he’s not prepared, doesn’t calculate its differences and transfer them to what he asks of his mount.
It is the Green Monster of racetracks and has brought great horses and riders to their knees when they haven’t understood its idiosyncrasies.
Differences? A mile and 1/8 is a one-turn race at Belmont. A mile race begins in front of the grandstand on Canterbury Park’s mile oval. It begins near the start of the backstretch at Belmont.
“The turns are so big, way bigger than on a mile track,” said former Canterbury riding champion Scott Stevens, who has raced there. “The half mile pole sits where the 3/8ths is on a normal (mile) track.”
Thus, the Belmont Stakes is often referred to as a rider’s race and Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, of course, finds himself the center of attention in that regard, paired as he is with Justify and a chance at the Triple Crown.
Smith won the first riding title at Canterbury Downs in 1985 while serving out his apprenticeship, was second to Sandy Hawley in 1986 and rode only half of the meet the following year, when he began testing other, larger venues on the East and West Coasts.
He has won the most Breeders’ Cup races (26) in history and has two wins in each of the Triple Crown races, among countless other achievements.
“Mike Smith is a real pro, one of the best if not the best,” said five-time Canterbury riding champ Dean Butler. “I’ve always admired him.”
That was Butler’s way of saying that Smith’s talent and experience will serve him well, enable him to deal with whatever challenges he encounters.
At a 1 ½ miles, a sense of pace is crucial. “You have to know how much horse you have under you and how much you have left,” Butler added. “And if you go too slow, there’s a good chance your horse won’t come back to you. You have to be aggressive and patient at the same time.”
Canterbury champ Ry Eikleberry sizes up the race and sees the possibility of what is sometimes known as paralysis through analysis, creating too many scenarios for yourself.
“You don’t want to overthink it too much,” he said. “Obviously, this horse (Justify) has a lot of speed and I don’t think you can change his running style,” Eikleberry said.
Eikleberry’s thought is to let the horse run his race, to do what he’s good at. “Don’t take his tactical speed away,” he explained. The best approach, he says, is simply to let Justify do his thing. There are scenarios, of course, that might take this Triple Crown contender out of contention __ say, if he gets trapped in a speed duel.
Stevens hadn’t seen the past performances but offered this thought on that possibility:
“My concern is that they might send someone out there to kill him off,” he said. “I think he’s the best horse and I don’t know that he has to be on the lead, though.”
Too fast, too early and the long stretch drive might become insurmountable for the frontrunners as they give way to horses closing from behind.
There is another scenario, Stevens points out, should no one challenge Justify and give him early ground.
“He’s the kind of horse that if he gets a big lead we just might have another Secretariat,” he added. (Secretariat won by a record 31 lengths in record time on the dirt of 2:24.) “He might open up so far that nobody can catch him.”
Everything points to a Justify win, his heritage, speed, toughness, heart, talent…so much so that a countervailing axiom has taken hold in some racing minds:
He looks like a sure winner, so he’s bound to lose. What seems more likely is that Belmont itself will play a role in the outcome.