With a quarter of a mile to go and his mighty horse’s tank tilting toward empty, a teenaged pup of a jockey looked ahead and learned one of the world’s odder wrinkles of measurement.
The quarter-mile of Belmont Park dirt that closes the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes is not a real quarter-mile. It’s a distended quarter-mile. It’s a yawning swath of land posing as a quarter-mile. It’s a haunted puzzle of a quarter-mile in which someone seems to keep moving back the wire.
“When I looked up, that quarter-mile looked like three miles to me,” Ron Franklin said.
Just 19 then, aboard the great Spectacular Bid, Franklin couldn’t have known he had started a club that never actually meets but perhaps should. He couldn’t have known that the “club” would grow to 10 jockeys across 36 years. Back then in 1979, at the brink of horse racing’s third straight Triple Crown win that would have made the feat seem almost blasé, Franklin couldn’t have known the feat would become almost passé. Three long decades plus six long years have droned into a Triple Crown drought that American Pharoah will aim to stem come Saturday.
In varying degrees, these club members know in their bones and their memory banks the axiomatic spite of the Belmont. They all won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in the same year. They all felt the three weeks of swelling interest around them. They all did not win the Belmont.
Chris Antley, whose courageous dismount after the wire in 1999 outshone a third-place finish because it may have saved Charismatic’s life, died at age 34 in December 2000. The other nine range in age from 43 to 68. All are male. From Gary Stevens to Chris McCarron and beyond, they include some of the most accomplished names in an unforgiving profession. Mario Gutierrez didn’t make the club because I’ll Have Another scratched before the 2012 Belmont. Kent Desormeaux made it twice, with Real Quiet in 1998 and Big Brown in 2008. By Saturday, Victor Espinoza, who rode War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome in 2014, either will have joined another club — alongside the 10 jockeys who have won the 11 Triple Crowns (Eddie Arcaro twice) — or joined this club thrice.
Some have spent untold time cringing. Some used to cringe but stopped. Some blame themselves. Some (McCarron, Stevens, Jose Santos) also have spoiled other people’s Triple Crown bids. Some embody a curious aspect of athletic human nature: suffering defeat more than enjoying victory. “Yeah, absolutely,” said Stevens, who rode Silver Charm to “almost” in 1997.
Some have a peculiar luxury. They know they just didn’t have enough horse. “Most of the time it’s a horse’s constitution,” said the retired McCarron, who at 60 runs a racing academy in Kentucky. “They’re not able to withstand the rigors of the Triple Crown campaign and then cap it off with a mile and a half at ‘Big Sandy.’ ”
That has been Espinoza’s case twice, factoring in War Emblem’s stumble from the gate in 2002, and has freed him from the surly company of regret.
“To regret, I should have done this, should have done that, no, not at all,” he said in the jockeys’ room at Santa Anita. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not perfect. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But not in those races!”
And he laughed out loud for six solid seconds.
It was the forgivable laugh of the unquestionably beaten, a laugh not afforded the victims of narrowness and its array of available excruciations. It’s a chirpiness present in the retired Jorge Velasquez 34 years after riding Pleasant Colony to a 1-1-3 Triple Crown in 1981, when he said, “I didn’t get beat a nose. I didn’t get beat a head. I didn’t get beat half a length. I got beat two-and-a-half lengths.”
Within the club, only Desormeaux knows the Belmont woes both ways, given Real Quiet’s loss by a nose in 1998 and Big Brown’s ease-up as a ninth-place nonfactor 10 years thereafter.
“I really didn’t think Big Brown could lose, but he didn’t run,” he said. “I mean, he had no foot, so no horse.”
With Real Quiet, the brain gets less quiet. “I never had one nightmare,” he said. “Nope. I’d have ‘daymares.’ When I was awake and would think about it, it would torture me, because I know, I know for absolute positive sure, the only instant that Victory Gallop was in front of me, was that instant at the wire. And Real Quiet never saw him. When he saw him at the wire, he took off like fresh out of a starting gate. Three jumps later, I was two lengths in front. I mean, he just got lost on the lead. He wasn’t tired. He just got lost on the lead.”
In a fantasy do-over, “Oh, I could have Victory Gallop pass me at the eighth pole and I would have come back and beat him easy. I could have followed Victory Gallop around the race, and I would win easy. I mean, I held Real Quiet tight for three-and-a-half, till inside the quarter pole when I asked him to explode. If I’d have just let him float along, he would have won easy. I tried to be too smart with him, I think. You don’t get a re-ride, you know . . . . And that’s the one that I would like a re-ride. He would win the next nine out of 10.”
Time used a year to heal, and the 2009 Belmont used 2 minutes 27 seconds to heal further. Desormeaux won that aboard Summer Bird and said, “I only felt like people are gonna think that I can’t master the mile-and-a-half, because it’s such a different ride. And I was able to erase that from my table.”
Stevens who rode Victory Gallop, nose and all, has erased pretty much everything erasable, including nine Triple Crown wins (three of each race). His mind just can’t fully erase 1997.
“It probably weighs more on my mind at this time of year than anything else, ‘what could have been,’ ” he said, soon adding, “It’s always, ‘What could I have done differently?’” he said. “‘What could I have done differently.’ ”
In the split seconds and Salvador Dali distances of the Belmont stretch, Stevens rode his gritty eye-to-eye competitor Silver Charm and anticipated a winnable duel with Free House. Then Free House faded. Then Silver Charm rode alone. Then Touch Gold sneaked up. “I had nightmares for a long time,” Stevens said. “When I had the fall in 2003 at the Arlington Million (when a scared horse threw him and caused a collapsed lung and neck injuries), those nightmares kind of took over for the Belmont.”
Remember, he cautions, he also had two other turns of what-could-have-been. The game little Thunder Gulch won two legs in 1995, finishing an unembarrassed third in the Preakness, and the sublime Point Given won two legs in 2001, Stevens reckoning him the best horse not to win the Kentucky Derby (fifth). This spring, Stevens reunited with his favorite horse, Silver Charm, and Stevens sobbed.
For love, or for what-could-have-been?
“Both,” he said.
McCarron, another Hall of Famer, knows he couldn’t have won the 1987 Belmont aboard Alysheba. Bet Twice, the winner by 14 lengths, pretty much ran to Queens while the others stayed back on Long Island. Yet even that didn’t spare McCarron some winces, because he finished fourth when he suspects he could have made second, and that distinction cost Alysheba’s human connections a million-dollar bonus.
“I do know my poor judgment, that did cost Alysheba the bonus,” he said. The Belmont distance had reared again. “[Trainer] Jack [Van Berg] had told me in the paddock, ‘If he wants to lay close, let him lay close.’ But I decided to take him back. I should not have done that. I wish I had just let him place himself in the race instead of having me place him.”
Afterward, “Jack was not a happy camper. And rightfully so. I came back, my first words out of my mouth, ‘I screwed it up.’ I should have been second.”
Yet a man with 7,141 victories and six Triple Crown race wins did say, “Time heals all.” And: “I’m speaking now as a 60-year-old man.” And: “I don’t think I felt that way back in 1987.”
And: “I derived so much pleasure from riding that horse that I’ve got no regrets whatsoever.”
Others’ plights weighed less. Easy Goer played a home game when he finally drilled rival Sunday Silence by eight lengths in 1989, after which jockey Patrick Valenzuela said, “The difference today was that Easy Goer ran a superb race.” The gelding Funny Cide faced slop and the rested excellence of Empire Maker in 2003, so that Santos says, “It did not [torment] because I’ll tell you what. I knew I was beaten halfway through the race . . . Empire Maker was on top of me and I could see my horse was not the same as the Preakness or Derby. It was a great story. I wish I could have won the Triple Crown. But hey, it seems so difficult for so many.”
Velasquez, 68, has spent more time thinking about the two wins across the past 34 years since 1981 partly because he had an excusable excuse. He thought Pleasant Colony “a cinch” at the rare distance given that horse’s pedigree and plodder’s knowhow that brought him all the way from 17th early in the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, the late Pleasant Colony’s grandson, Tonalist, won the Belmont last year.
Then Velasquez’s memory bank reeled off some agonizingly slow early fractions — “25, 50 . . .” — and said, “They slowed down the pace so well. When I made my move, they took off running again. . . . He was a plodder, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
More famously, jockeys have taken the public guff of wagerers and trainers and dreamers for misreading the rare distance and pushing horses prematurely. That happened with Smarty Jones, the people’s favorite and painful case who led by four lengths at the top of the stretch in 2004 and coaxed Tom Durkin’s emotional call: “It’s been 26 years! It’s just one furlong away!” Then his decrescendo at the wire, with air between the words: “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.” In that aftermath, both jockey Stewart Elliott and trainer John Servis lamented the horse’s excessive sharpness.
With Franklin, trainer Bud Delp took the rare tack of criticizing openly his fledgling jockey through the years, even as Spectacular Bid famously might have lacked some oomph from stepping on a safety pin. At 55, after a 1,403-win riding career that stopped in 1992, Franklin has found his way to some general peace. He works with horses, training and riding, on Don Pistorio’s Tuscany Farm in Maryland. He said he’s trying to help others in 12-step programs. He said Pistorio is helping him try to get his license to resume riding. He said, “I was blessed just to be able to get on a horse like that in my first year riding.”
He also said, “I wasn’t used to riding a mile and a half. I’d been riding a little over a year at that time. I rushed him a little too much, and he just wasn’t 100 percent that day.”
And in the beguiling Belmont puzzle, that last quarter-mile did mushroom to three miles.
“I can see it in my head,” Franklin said. “I can still see it in my head.”