Thursday, June 3, 2010

Belmont: Not your typical racetrack

Belmont: Not your typical racetrack

By David Grening

ELMONT, N.Y. - There is a scene in the popular movie "Hoosiers" when the players on the underdog Hickory High School basketball team walk into Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indiana for the first time and look in awe at the humongous setting on which they will be playing for the first time.

Gene Hackman, as coach Norman Dale, tells his players to take out a tape measure to prove that the height of the basket is the same as the one they shoot at in their small town.

When jockeys Martin Garcia, Jamie Theriot, and Joel Rosario walk onto the Belmont Park main track for the first time in their careers on Saturday, they too will most likely be in awe of the grandiose setting. But there isn't a tape measure big enough to wrap around the expansive track. As the only 1 1/2-mile-track in North America, Belmont Park is unlike any other track at which the three have ridden.

Their inexperience at Belmont Park could come into play in Saturday's 142nd Belmont Stakes in which Garcia will ride Game On Dude, Theriot gets on Stay Put, and Rosario climbs aboard Make Music for Me.

For Theriot and Rosario, the Belmont will be their only main-track mount on the card. Garcia picked up a mount in the Acorn, two races before the Belmont, and also will ride the Manhattan, a 1 1/4-mile turf race.

"Woody Stephens told me this once: Anybody who rides this race and has never ridden at the racetrack is at a huge disadvantage, and I believe that," said Mike Sellitto, agent for jockey Kent Desormeaux, who won last year's Belmont aboard Summer Bird but is not engaged to ride a horse in this year's race.

At most tracks, horses are passing the three-eighths pole when they make the bend into the far turn. At Belmont, it is the half-mile pole that is positioned at the start of the far turn.

Jockey John Velazquez, who has ridden at Belmont Park for nearly 20 years, said jockeys sometimes lose their way at Belmont.

"Most important, you got to know where the poles are and then you got to ride the racetrack the way it's playing," said Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont aboard Rags to Riches. "The heat of the moment, it comes. They're making a premature move at you, and everybody forgets where they are."

Velazquez felt Stewart Elliott, who had ridden just three dirt races at Belmont in the 4 1/2 years preceding the 2004 Belmont Stakes, moved too soon aboard Smarty Jones, who was beaten a length by Birdstone in attempting to win the Triple Crown.

Last year, Calvin Borel's only mount on the Belmont Stakes Day card was Mine That Bird in the Belmont. Borel had ridden just two horses on Belmont's main track in the previous decade. Many faulted Borel for moving Mine That Bird too early in the race, and he finished third. Borel, who was at Belmont on Monday to ride Warrior's Reward in the Metropolitan Handicap, concurred that the move was too soon, but said he didn't have much of a choice.

"I thought he was a little aggressive," Borel said, recalling the race. "Going a mile and a half, he was going to show a little more speed. I fought him down the backside a little bit. I decided to let him go, which probably was a bad decision, but if you fight them they don't finish. You were damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Borel will ride longshot Dave in Dixie in Saturday's Belmont.

Bob Baffert, trainer of Game On Dude, said he has so much confidence in Garcia that he doesn't worry about the rider's lack of experience at Belmont. However, Baffert did say that he was happy to hear Garcia picked up the mount on Champagne d'Oro in the one-mile Acorn.

"All he needs is one little race over the track," Baffert said.

Garcia did win stakes in his first-ever starts at tracks like Lone Star Park and Oaklawn Park, but they're not configured like Belmont Park.

"It's a long way around there," Baffert said. "Martin, he'll do his homework, he's a pretty smart kid. We've talked about it. He basically said, `Well it does have a quarter pole, doesn't it?' I said yes. 'Well that's all I need to know.' You have to have your confidence in your horse, that's why Martin rides so well for me. Everywhere I send him, he wins. . . . I'm counting on him to keep the score up."

Steve Margolis, trainer of Stay Put, is utilizing that same logic for keeping Theriot on the horse. Theriot has three wins from six mounts on Stay Put.

"He's got a good rapport with the horse. The horse seems to run good for him," Margolis said. "I think it's definitely a positive thing having a rider that knows the horse."

Alexis Barba, trainer of Make Music for Me, said her confidence in Rosario is why she is keeping the youngster on the horse. She was quite pleased with how Rosario rode Make Music for Me when the horse rallied from 30 lengths back to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm not going to play a lot into that," Barba said of Rosario's inexperience at Belmont. "You drive yourself crazy worrying about everything. I think the kid's going to be a superstar one day, just raw talent."