When jockey Mario Gutierrez came to Pimlico to ride I’ll Have Another in the Preakness, he knew almost nothing about the race or the track. He had spent most of his career at little Hastings Park in Vancouver. And so he studied.
He went to the press box to watch prior runnings of the race on a video monitor, then returned to his hotel and studied more: “I watched past replays of the Preakness and the horses who were involved in the race. I did my homework. ” Once Gutierrez felt properly prepared, he relaxed. “I try not to put too many pressures on myself. Whatever is meant to happen,” he said, “will happen.”
What happened, of course, was a victory that gave I’ll Have Another the chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Since Gutierrez never saw Belmont Park before this week, he’ll need to do his homework again. Indeed, he should do it with added diligence, because jockeys’ tactics are more crucial in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes than in any other American race. Racing fans and historians can readily recount the errors by riders who have cost their mounts the Triple Crown. What is meant to happen doesn’t necessarily happen in the Belmont.
To avoid the pitfalls that may await him Saturday, Gutierrez might begin his homework by studying film of four illuminating Belmonts of the past. The videos are all accessible on YouTube.
1979: This race may have special poignancy for Gutierrez, because it marked the last time a jockey with credentials as slim as his own rode the favorite in the Belmont Stakes. Ron Franklin, aboard the mighty Spectacular Bid, was sitting second behind an 85-to-1 shot, Gallant Best, who had torn off to a five-length lead on the backstretch. Just behind him was Angel Cordero Jr., who had done everything possible to intimidate Franklin in the days leading up to the Belmont. Perhaps he wanted to get away from Cordero, perhaps he was overconfident, but Franklin made a horrible decision when he urged Spectacular Bid to duel with Gallant Best, speeding six furlongs in an enervating 1:11.2. (In the prior two years, Affirmed and Seattle Slew had covered the same fraction in 1:14.) This unnecessary exertion took its toll — Bid finished third — and Franklin earned a dubious place in history for losing aboard one of best thoroughbreds of all time.
2004: Fast-forward 25 years to a Triple Crown bid that evoked memories of Spectacular Bid. The undefeated Smarty Jones was sitting just outside the two leaders, in good stalking position, when another rival moved up outside of him. Jockey Stewart Elliott didn’t want to risk getting caught in traffic, so he hit the gas, accelerated the third quarter in a blistering 23.11 seconds, opened a four-length lead — and was caught at the wire by longshot Birdstone. Like Franklin, Elliott will have this professional epitaph: “He moved too soon.”
1998: Real Quiet had won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by making a strong wide move on the final turn to take command and defeat his rival, Victory Gallop. In the Belmont, jockey Kent Desormeaux employed the same tactics — he made a surge on the final turn and opened a four-length lead — but the results were different. He ran out of gas in the long Belmont stretch and Victory Gallop caught him, winning by less than an inch.
2009: Mine That Bird had won the Derby with an electrifying rally, and Calvin Borel tried to duplicate it in the Belmont. After trailing the field early, he launched a last-to-first move on the turn, as track announcer Tom Durkin called: “It’s Mine That Bird with a bold blitz to the lead!” But Borel’s mount couldn’t sustain his momentum through the stretch, and he faded to finish third.
If Gutierrez studies these races, he will absorb the most important lessons about riding the Belmont Stakes: Don’t move too soon. And don’t try to win by making a bold blitz to the lead.
In the first two legs of the Triple Crown, horses often do win by making strong moves on the final turn. Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Ferdinand and Real Quiet all did so in the Kentucky Derby, took command a furlong from the finish line and went on to win the roses. But these horses all lost the Belmont, whose 12-furlong distance makes it a different type of race. The most efficient way to run the Belmont distance is to travel at a relative steady pace — a rule that applies to both front-runners and come-from-behind runners. When Drosselmeyer rallied to win in 2010, he ran his three half-miles in 49.8 seconds, 50.8 seconds and 50.8 seconds. When Swale led all the way in 1984, his three half miles were 49.4, 49.2 and 49.6.
The aforementioned jockeys who made premature moves had something else in common. Franklin, Elliott, Desormeaux and Borel were all based outside of New York and had never competed at Belmont Park regularly. Only Desormeaux had ridden in the Belmont Stakes.
Experience counts in the last leg of the Triple Crown. And Gutierrez’s lack of experience — at Belmont, at a mile and a half and at high-level racing in general — could be an issue on Saturday.
But the 25-year-old does bring significant assets into the race. He is thoughtful about his profession. As he demonstrated at Pimlico, he is willing to study and learn. The people in the I’ll Have Another camp say he has always appeared confident, relaxed and unfazed by pressure. Moreover, the fact that he has done most of his riding in the minor leagues may be a bit misleading. At the six-month Hastings Park season in 2011, Gutierrez won with 30 percent of his mounts throughout the season — an almost unheard-of rate at any level of the game. He was a star in the making.
His biggest asset, of course, is the colt who will be underneath him. Although I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness with strong rallies, he had displayed good early speed in all of his prior California races. This versatility gives his jockey plenty of strategic options in the Belmont. All he needs to remember — on the biggest day of his life, with 100,000 people in the grandstand cheering and millions watching — is to stay calm and be patient.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.