An orange and white ambulance drives a discreet distance behind the horses racing at Belmont. The littlest big men in sport ride those half-ton animals at 40 miles per hour. The ambulance is there to pick up the broken pieces, if necessary, and for an empty, full moment today--empty of breath, full of fear--you remembered Ron Turcotte, who won riding Secretariat here 10 years ago and now is paralyzed. He fell with a horse.
Laffit Pincay Jr. might have fallen today at the top of the stretch when he chose the route of danger as the only way to win the Belmont Stakes. On the late-running Caveat, Pincay bumped into another horse. He brushed the rail at speed and then bounced off it. The only way to win, the master Pincay would say, was to steer through an opening that, in a blink, changed from a window of opportunity to an alley of darkness.
Jockeys who get to be 36 years old, as Pincay has, know their time is up when they see the hole on the rail and choose the route more safely traveled. To win big races, to win $72 million worth of races as Pincay has done in 17 years, riders must dare the devil to put them in that orange and white ambulance. The best riders, mostly fatalists, have a saying: if you're going to get shot, you won't get hung. Not to worry, then, even with the hole closing.
When Pincay first saw his path to victory, it was a freeway with slow traffic in the right-hand lane.
"There was plenty of room," he said, "for two horses."
But not for long. As Caveat moved into the open space, the darkness hurried in. The horses were making the left-hand turn into the stretch, with the favored Slew o' Gold in front, running alongside the fading Au Point. Slew o' Gold's jockey, the famous and infamous Angel Cordero, seemed to move the leader into Au Point. The effect was to shove Au Point a step to the left and into Caveat's path.
"Then there was barely room for one horse," Pincay said later. He wouldn't criticize Cordero, whose critics take a number to throw darts at him, other than to say he believed Cordero would have been disqualified had Slew o' Gold won.
Nor did Caveat's trainer, the veteran Woody Stephens, throw barbs. He threw spears.
"It's uncalled for," Stephens said of Cordero's move, "because he damn near knocked him (Pincay) through the rail. He pushed the other horse into us."
When someone asked if Stephens thought Cordero would have been disqualified, the trainer said, "He wasn't going to win, anyway. We were going to knock him down and run over the top of him."
Running to darkness, Pincay's decision needed to be made immediately. He could slow up and let the hole close in front of him, forcing him to go outside and catch the leaders again. That, or he could stand on the accelerator and let the devil take the hindmost.
"If I take back, I lose," Pincay said.
So in the next moment, with breathless witnesses wondering how brave these little big men can get, Pincay raced into the closing space.
"I holler to see if they open for me," Pincay said. Over the roar of 60,000 customers, into the pounding of 15 horses' hooves, the little brave man screamed at his buddies that here he came. "I let them know I was in there . . . But nothing happened."
So Pincay's horse bumped into Au Point's hind quarters.
Then Caveat's side, under Pincay's foot, brushed the rail.
Then Caveat's left shoulder bumped the rail.
But, praise be, Caveat never lost his footing and Pincay never lost his balance in the irons.
"If I would have taken hold, he'd probably have clipped somebody's heels and fallen," Pincay said. "If we trip, we go down. I thought for a moment he is going to go down. The bump was pretty good, very hard."
Once straightened out, Caveat moved past Slew o' Gold easily and gave the Stephens-Pincay team a second straight Belmont victory, an accomplishment previously done only by Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte with Riva Ridge in 1972 and Secretariat in '73.
Ten years have flown since Secretariat did. He won the Belmont by 31 lengths in what racing historian Kent Hollingsworth calls "the very best race ever . . . a Bob Beamon leap." There's a bronze statue of Secretariat in the paddock here, his front legs off the ground, reaching for the sky in a moment that defines the great horse.
"We have a super-slow motion film of Secretariat racing against Riva Ridge," said Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat and was here today for a 10th anniversary celebration. "When Secretariat passes Riva, it's not because he has longer legs. It's some mystical mechanics. Riva's feet reach out in a curling motion, and Secretariat's feet--why, they take flight."
In a 1 1/2-mile race, Secretariat ran what Chenery called "fierce fractions": 46 1/5 for a half, 1:09 4/5 for six furlongs, 1:34 1/5 for a mile, 1:59 for 1 1/4 miles.
"When he came into the stretch, my heart was pounding so much that I couldn't hold my binoculars still," Chenery said today, bouncing in her chair. "Lucien screamed, 'My God, Ronnie, don't fall off.' "
"I was on the roof of the press box that day," Hollingsworth said, for all good race people remember where they were that day, "and when I saw the fractions, I was in a rage. I said, 'By God, he's going to cook that horse.' If I'd had a rifle, I'd have shot him out of the saddle, I was so mad. No horse could run 1 1/2 miles that way. No horse. But Secretariat did."
Secretariat's time for the distance was 2:24, Caveat's today was 2:27 4/5. Horsemen figure one-fifth of a second is a length, which means Caveat would have finished 19 lengths behind Secretariat.