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.