Wait, wait some more, then hurry up at the top of the stretch.
Jockey Victor Espinoza has been anticipating Saturday’s Belmont Stakes for three weeks, and he’ll need more patience to maximize California Chrome’s performance as they seek the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Before last Saturday, the longtime California regular hadn’t ridden since 2008 on Belmont Park’s massive main track, whose circumference (1 ½ miles) and configuration are unique.
Jockeys based elsewhere often move prematurely at Belmont, where the huge, sweeping turns make them think the finish line is closer than it is. Calvin Borel took off way too soon in the 2009 Belmont on Mine That Bird, who looked like the winner in midstretch before fading to third. Borel had downplayed his unfamiliarity with the layout, saying, “It’s like any other track; you just turn left.”
It’s not that simple.
Jimmy Jerkens trains 6-1 second favorite Wicked Strong. Jerkens grew up at Belmont, where his father, Allen, has saddled winners since 1950. “It’s very tricky, especially for jockeys who haven’t ridden there,” Jimmy Jerkens said. “You’re heading for that far turn and you’ve got to remember you’ve got a long way to go, longer than at any other racetrack.”
Espinoza will get the lay of the land in the third race, the Brooklyn Handicap, whose 1 ½-mile distance matches the Belmont’s. He’ll be taking notes.
California Chrome’s trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, rode at Belmont in the late 1950s and early ’60s. “Victor knows he can’t move too early on him,” he said. “You’ve got to sit as long as you can.”
Sherman said he doesn’t give riders instructions, and Espinoza is not a Plan A-Plan B guy anyway. He likes to wing it. “I never have a plan how I want to ride this horse,” he said. “Every race, people ask me, ‘How are you going to ride him?’ I wish I knew. I make my decisions during the race.”
As for how Chrome, or any of the 10 others, will handle the distance, take your best guess. As Billy Gowan, trainer of Ride On Curlin, said: “Nobody really knows. None of them ever tried it.”
“Chromie” enjoyed a perfect trip in the Kentucky Derby. In the Preakness, Espinoza was forced to turn him loose with a half-mile to go, about a furlong earlier than he wanted. Sherman realizes his star “has a target on his back” and that his rivals don’t plan to escort him to immortality.
How California Chrome breaks from post 2, and how much pressure other riders apply, will be crucial. Rick Violette trains Samraat, who should be part of the early pace. “California Chrome is going for history,” Violette said, “and we’re all trying to throw something in his way.”