Belmont Park is ready for Smarty Jones. The only question is, is Smarty ready for Belmont Park? The stands and surroundings can hold 85,000 people comfortably, and thousands more than that will make it here Saturday by car, train, bus, bike and their own feet to see if Smarty can win the first Triple Crown since 1978. This is a huge racing plant in every way. The panorama from the grandstand is so vast it seems as if the trees stretch from one end of the earth to the other.
It's an attractive place, although not normally mentioned among such idylls as Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar. There's a lot of red brick in Belmont. The paddock is lush and flowery. The barn area is immaculate.
The track itself is big. It's aptly called "Big Sandy." By chance this morning, I drove onto a backstretch road that hugged the 1 1/2-mile oval, and no matter that the road ran clockwise like the races in Britain, it cost just as much money in gas to get to the finish line approaching it from the first turn as the traditional direction. Like the expected throng, the horses have a lot of ground to cover.
One common misperception, however, is that the run to the finish line from the top of the stretch goes on forever. You remember the photograph of Ron Turcotte, looking over his shoulder aboard Secretariat as they near the finish in 1973 and seeing . . . no one. In that photo, the distance to the wire looks as long as the Jersey turnpike. In fact, Belmont's stretch run is shorter than at either Churchill Downs or Pimlico, or a lot of other places. At those shorter tracks, the finish line is situated farther up the stretch, whereas here the horses finish the Belmont Stakes where they start.
So when the track announcer cries out, "and down the stretch they come," remember, the horses don't have that far to go -- just 1,097 feet. Having said that, it was long enough for Affirmed and Alydar to have hooked up in what might have been the greatest stretch battle of all, when Alydar poked in front and Affirmed rallied to become, to this day, the last Triple winner.
And of course, the homestretch was too long for Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 to complete the Triple Crown. Trainer Bob Baffert said that Silver Charm simply never saw Touch Gold charging on the outside, that if he had he never would have lost. Baffert had no handy reason why Real Quiet got nipped by a nose by Victory Gallop. But by the time Baffert's War Emblem stumbled out of the gate in the 2002 Belmont and finished eighth as another Triple bid failed, the trainer knew as well as anyone this simple truth: Anything can happen in the Belmont.
Wasn't Spectacular Bid, in 1979, as certain a Triple Crown winner as any? He took off after an 85-1 shot named Gallant Best, who predictably burned out as Bid finished third. But it turned out that he probably didn't lose because he had expended too much energy in the chase. He had suffered a freak foot injury before the race, having gotten a pin stuck in his foot back in his stall. When you think of that, you understand better how difficult it is getting a horse, even an odds-on favorite like Smarty Jones, to the gate so that he feels like running.
Experienced Belmont Stakes observers say the potential winner had better be making a move on the turn for home, preferably the beginning of the turn. "The turns are long, sweeping and easy on a horse," said Jerry Porcelli, the track superintendent here. "They're not like hairpin turns, where a horse could get flung out. So much of the action happens on the turn. A horse isn't going to lose ground going to the outside. He could benefit from being out there."
The Belmont usually does not favor extreme late closers, ones far back when the leaders hit the midway point of the second turn. There are exceptions, though. In 1996, Editor's Note made up a lot of ground after running 12th early before going four wide on the turn to win. And Victory Gallop pretty much galloped most of the way in '98 before also going four wide on the turn and running down Real Quiet. If Smarty Jones doesn't take his cue from Secretariat, 1999's Lemon Drop Kid might be the example to follow. He was nicely rated and rallied after Charismatic and the filly Silverbulletday engaged in a mile-long death struggle for the lead. One of Smarty Jones's great strengths has been settling in behind the early speed and kicking it home when asked.
For the occasional visitor to Belmont Park, Lemon Drop Kid's unexpected rally to spoil yet another Triple Crown bid characterizes this place: There's almost always action, there's plenty to learn, and there's no telling what will be next. The first time here I encountered Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, and that venerable trainer took the time to tell me just about his entire life story -- his first winner was in 1900, Agnes D.
The 1971 Belmont was a good example of how hard people root, and how quickly they can despair; after Canonero II faded on the far turn and finished fourth in another thwarted Triple Crown effort, a blizzard of losing tickets covered the track apron and hardly a fan could be found on the suddenly quiet premises.
Jockey Chris Antley holding Charismatic's broken leg after crossing the finish line in 1999, so the horse wouldn't hurt himself any more, was one of the most touching scenes at a racetrack; then the likable Antley's death from a drug overdose 18 months later was sadder still.
Saturday, a celebration is in store. Smarty Jones is the overwhelming favorite. His trainer, John Servis, actually said, "He's getting his game face on." Eight victories in eight starts, including the Preakness so convincingly, has made betting against Smarty little more than a half-hearted gesture. It's supposed to rain overnight and through Saturday, but then Smarty won the Kentucky Derby in the slop. The temperature is supposed to fall sharply, though. Who knows? It's the Belmont. Maybe it'll snow.