It’s not jockey racing. When a trainer saddles the best horse, most riders are capable of winning on it. But sometimes a 109-pound man’s tactical brilliance can make a thoroughbred max out and run the race of his life, which is what Joel Rosario did with Sir Winston in the 151st Belmont Stakes.
The shortest way around is always along the rail, especially when it’s golden, as it had been Friday and Saturday at Belmont Park. That’s where Rosario kept his 10-1 shot for most of the race, and it made all the difference. Sir Winston saved ground until Rosario tipped him out three-wide entering the stretch, when he overtook front-running Joevia, a 21-1 shot, and held off 9-5 favorite Tacitus by a length before a crowd of 56,217.
Joevia was three-quarters of a length farther back, holding on gamely after setting slow fractions — 23.92 seconds for a quarter-mile, 48.79 for a half, 1:13.54 for 6 furlongs, 1:38.27 for a mile and 2:02.72 for 1 1/4 miles.
“He’s a very nice horse and you have to let him do his thing,” Rosario said.
Before Saturday, Sir Winston’s thing was losing most of the time. He was 0-for-4 this year, beaten a combined 29 1/2 lengths. He never won a stakes in five attempts and was 0-for-5 on the dirt. His two wins in nine tries had come on a synthetic surface at Woodbine, near Toronto.
Many consider Rosario the country’s best rider. He can be erratic, yet when he’s at his best, there’s nobody better. He also won the 2014 Belmont on Tonalist. The 34-year-old Dominican gave a clinic on how to produce a peak performance from a chronic underachiever, and Mark Casse’s “other horse” gave the trainer a second consecutive classic. His Preakness winner, 7-2 second favorite War of Will, faded to ninth.
“I’m really happy,” Rosario said. “He didn’t seem to mind being inside,” which was the understatement of a wild Triple Crown. “I just took my time with him. For the distance, he broke very good. Today, he was a little closer, so I let him be where he was comfortable.”
Runner-up Tacitus never found his comfort zone under Jose Ortiz, another outstanding rider. Tacitus’ pedigree indicated he would handle 1½ miles with no problem, and he did, and if he hadn’t had to travel a lot farther than that, he probably would have won. The rangy gray was three-wide into the first turn after breaking from the outside in the field of 10, and Ortiz never could angle over. Tacitus was three-wide all the way down the backstretch and five-wide into the stretch. He kept grinding away but ran out of ground after covering too much of it.
“When Rosario came out, [Sir Winston] gave him a great kick, and that made it tougher for me,” Ortiz said. “My horse kept coming, but Rosario gave him a great ride.”
A mild bump with War of Will entering the stretch hurt Tacitus, too.
“We did have a bit of a wide trip, which you never like,” trainer Bill Mott said. “We planned to try to be in contention at the quarter pole, and he was. I thought he was moving well enough that he was going to win, but he just couldn’t get there.
“I can’t give any other excuses other than we’ll see from watching the replay how much ground we lost.”
Enough to make the difference between first and second.
Little attention was paid this week to Sir Winston, who was named for Winston Churchill, underdog England’s hero during World War II. Thursday was the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Normandy, so maybe history buffs made hunch bets on him.
The son of Awesome Again paid $22.40 after being timed in 2:28.30 and earned $800,000 from the purse of $1.5 million, raising his total to $961,773 for Tracy Farmer. Behind the first three came Tax, Master Fencer, Spinoff, Everfast, Intrepid Heart, War of Will and Bourbon War.
Casse had found Sir Winston’s second-place effort with Rosario on May 11 in Belmont's Peter Pan Stakes encouraging.
“I said all week he was doing really well,” Casse said. “He had a race over the track. What can I say? It’s just exciting. I saw Joel cut the corner a little bit. I could see War of Will was getting a little weary, so I went to riding Sir Winston.”
No need. Rosario had that covered.
Women — and men — flocked to the track in colorful summer clothes, with women wearing brightly colored, creative, hats and fascinators.