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For American Pharoah, conquering Belmont Park is in the quirks

An aerial view of Belmont Racetrack in Elmont.

An aerial view of Belmont Racetrack in Elmont. In the foreground is the practice track. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Nobody ever knew more than Woody Stephens did about how to train a horse for the Belmont Stakes, and nobody ever will. His five consecutive victories from 1982-86 in "The Test of the Champion" are racing's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Not all records are meant to be broken.

Stephens (1913-98), the folksy son of a Kentucky sharecropper, made it big in New York. The Woodman loved a good line, and when he came up with one, he kept it in his routine. One of his favorites: "The buildings get a lot taller once you cross the Hudson River."

The Big Town's signature race, the Belmont Stakes, is run at North America's largest track, Belmont Park. Stephens loved his home advantage at Elmont's majestic course, whose size and long, sweeping turns often disorient jockeys who don't ride there regularly.

Billy Turner trained Seattle Slew, hero of the 1977 Triple Crown, and has been a Belmont Park regular since the 1970s. "Woody did it with horses who trained at Belmont every day," Turner said, "and it does give you an edge if you do that. It makes a difference for the horse and for the rider."

Victor Espinoza, California-based jockey of Triple Crown contender American Pharoah, rarely rides at Belmont, and his mount never has been on its deep, sandy surface. After the Preakness, trainer Bob Baffert shipped Pharoah to Churchill Downs, where he'll train before taking a Tuesday flight to Long Island.

Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed, who in 1978 was the last to complete the sweep.

"I think it certainly helps riding around Belmont," he said. "It's easy to make a mistake if you don't ride there regularly. It's not unusual for a jockey to move a little bit prematurely."

That's what Churchill specialist Calvin Borel did in the 2009 Belmont on Mine That Bird, who looked like a winner in the stretch before fading to third. Borel had dismissed the notion that Belmont was unique, saying: "It's like any other track. You just turn left."

It's not that simple.

Baffert's longtime exercise rider Dana Barnes agreed that Belmont can be confusing even during morning workouts. "It's so huge," she said. "It feels like you should be coming to the three-eighths pole when you're at the half-mile pole."

Cauthen and Turner spoke on a conference call featuring Triple Crown winners -- owner Penny Chenery and jockey Ron Turcotte (Secretariat, 1973); co-owner Jim Hill and rider Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew), and Affirmed's co-owner Patrice Wolfson.

All said they're rooting for American Pharoah to end the 37-year drought while stressing it will take a supreme effort. "I think the time has come," Wolfson said. "He's done everything they've asked him to do. It's just whether he takes to the Belmont Park oval. It's certainly a challenge."

Hill agreed. "You not only have to have a superior horse," he said, "but it has to be managed well and have no bad luck [with health] and good racing luck."

Handling 1 1/2 miles, a distance none of these horses has tried before, is the great unknown. Then there's the fatigue issue. American Pharoah will be racing for the third time in five weeks. Horses who skipped the Preakness won the last nine Belmonts, and most of his main rivals will have had five weeks off.

To Chenery, the task's immensity is what makes it so riveting.

"The Triple Crown brings out the instinct to root for something that hasn't been done," she said. "People say, 'It's been 37 years. Why is that?' If it were happening every year, people would never look up."

Notes & quotes: American Pharoah walked around his barn Wednesday after working 4 furlongs Tuesday. He is scheduled to jog Thursday . . . Belmont contender Keen Ice worked 5 furlongs at Churchill in 1:00.60.

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