Unlike European grass courses, many of which go uphill, downhill and clockwise, there's not much variety among North American tracks. There's one very big exception: Belmont Park. It has the continent's largest dirt surface, a circumference of 1 1/2 miles, compared with a mile at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Tactics that work in Louisville and Baltimore often backfire on Belmont's unique configuration, where patience can mean everything.
Gary Stevens, who ended a seven-year retirement in January, will ride Preakness winner Oxbow in Saturday's 145th Belmont Stakes. The 50-year-old Hall of Famer calls Belmont Park his favorite track. Despite three Belmont wins, he's not overconfident.
"It's a big ocean there, and I just want to reacquaint myself," Stevens said. "It's been seven years. It's a tricky place. It may look simple, but it's not simple. I think the best horse normally wins at Belmont, other than jockey error."
Racing analyst Richard Migliore rode 1,352 winners there. "The five-eighths pole at Belmont is located where the 31/2-furlong pole is at most tracks," Migliore said. "Most horses start to move when they get into the second turn. So even if the rider isn't asking it, the horse thinks it's time to go and can take the rider into the race too soon."
If a jockey isn't familiar with Belmont's seemingly endless backstretch and wide, sweeping turns, he can turn a potential winner into a loser. Exhibit A: Calvin Borel's Belmont performance on Mine That Bird.
Borel is masterful at Churchill Downs, with three Derby victories. In 2009, he was seeking an unprecedented jockey Triple Crown, having won the Derby on Mine That Bird and the Preakness on Rachel Alexandra, who skipped the Belmont. Borel had ridden only seven times in his career at Belmont, but he didn't think that was a big deal.
"It's nothing different, just turn left when you get in the turns," he said while predicting victory. "It's like any other racetrack."
No, it isn't, and Borel learned that the hard way. He accelerated on Mine That Bird much too soon, making a powerful, four-wide burst on the turn to hit the front entering the stretch. At the eighth pole, the gelding was still ahead but tiring, and Summer Bird, under Kent Desormeaux, took the lead inside the sixteenth pole as Mine That Bird faded to third. His trainer, Chip Woolley, charitably said, "I thought Calvin might have moved a hair early."
Borel went from media darling to goat in 2 1/2 minutes.
"Belmont Park is like the ocean," Stevens said. "You can have a lot of fun in it, but it can hurt you if you don't respect it."
After finishing third in the Derby on Revolutionary, Borel won't ride him Saturday. His gaffe on Mine That Bird may have influenced Todd Pletcher.
"Well, it was a tough decision," the trainer said, "because I thought Calvin gave [Revolutionary] a beautiful ride in the Derby. And the biggest reason we went with Calvin in the Derby was that's his home base. He rides Churchill extremely well and he won the 2010 Derby for us with Super Saver. But Javier [Castellano] won the Louisiana Derby on Revolutionary, and Belmont is Javier's home track."
In 1998, Stevens, riding Victory Gallop, wrecked a Triple Crown bid by a nose when he caught Real Quiet in the final jump. Desormeaux committed the same error Borel would make 11 years later, surging four-wide on the turn to open a four-length lead with a furlong to go. Perhaps it was poetic justice that Desormeaux and Summer Bird benefited from Borel's mistake.
"No knock to anybody," Stevens said, "but I was involved in a Belmont that may have been a little bit of not respecting Belmont Park. And I won't say a year or anything."
He didn't have to.