Belmont's 'Test' a unique challenge
ELMONT, N.Y. -- They come from all corners of the nation -- in from Los Angeles, up from Louisville, down from Saratoga -- or from right here on Long Island, where the 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes will take place Saturday. They are horsemen's sons and former assistants and grown-ups who broke into this game after hanging on the rail as children, chasing the dream of someday training horses like Forego or Seattle Slew, like Secretariat. Now their brows are furrowed and their hair is turning gray, but the men and woman who bring their runners to the Belmont are just as hopeful as they were so many seasons ago.
First come the rookies: Bill Mott, a Hall of Famer whose list of great accomplishments does not yet include a Belmont score; Alexis Barba, Mike Maker, Steve Margolis, Dale Romans and John Sadler will all send out their first Belmont contenders; Rick Dutrow Jr. seeks redemption after Big Brown's failed Triple Crown bid two years ago. Then there are the veterans: Bob Baffert, who sent Point Given to victory in 2001; Kiaran McLaughlin, upset winner with Jazil in 2006; Todd Pletcher, gaining his first Classic score in 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches; and Nick Zito, who won in 2004 and 2008 with Birdstone and Da 'Tara. For each trainer, the race known as the "Test of the Champion" poses a different set of difficulties and challenges, as each enters the Belmont with a different type of horse. Various last works and recent performances factor into a runner's chances in the third leg of the Triple Crown, as do overall conditioning and amount of time between starts. Over the 1½ miles of the oval known as "Big Sandy," one of thoroughbred racing's toughest events can be a true assessment of a horseman's make and mettle.
Talk to the different trainers, however, and every one will have a slightly different method, different ideas. Romans, for instance, shipped Belmont competitor First Dude to New York on May 22, giving his runner an opportunity to work over the track and get in several gallops well in advance of his start.
"I brought my horse in early because Churchill is a little different than this racetrack," Romans said. "It has a little bounce this year; they're keeping it a little firmer. I wanted to make sure we got up here in time to train on the sandier, deeper racetrack, and also let him get used to going around that mile-and-a-half oval. They're on their left lead a lot longer than they will be on most other racetracks, and it's definitely not going to hurt him to be here."
Pletcher, whose stable is based in New York, is very familiar with the oval. He said his contender, Interactif, arrived at Belmont shortly after it was decided that he would not start in the May 1 Kentucky Derby.
"There's perhaps some advantage to having been here from the standpoint that basically since the Derby, he's spent the last five weeks here," Pletcher said. "He's settled in, trained over the track. But I don't know that somebody can't ship in three days out and have just as good a chance. To me, sometimes the whole 'getting used to a track' is overrated. But if a horse doesn't like a track, training over it every day is probably going to make things worse. If they like it, then you're OK."
Zito did the exact opposite of Romans and Pletcher, keeping morning-line favorite Ice Box and stablemate Fly Down at Saratoga Race Course until June 2. While First Dude has never started over the Belmont oval, Ice Box ran to a fourth-place finish here as a 2-year-old and Fly Down won the May 8 Dwyer Stakes by an impressive six lengths.
"I think the main thing is that you have to have the horse to go a mile and a half," Zito said. "I think it will all work out with the best horse."
Baffert echoed that sentiment, and gave Game On Dude his first gallop over the oval Thursday morning. The Lone Star Derby winner completed an easy circuit of the track before returning to the barn. His entire trip took less than 15 minutes.
"That was easy," Baffert said. "Now that we're done training, what do we do for the rest of the time?"
Baffert shipped Point Given in for the 2001 Belmont only three days before the race, as well.
"I brought him here like that and he won by 12¾ lengths," he remarked. "He didn't need to be here."
But the Hall of Fame horseman also suffered three brutal losses of potential Triple Crown sweeps: with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
"You have to bring a good horse here, that's more important than bringing them in here early," he said. "They all say to come in early, but you have to have the horse."
Playing at the level of Triple Crown competition isn't easy. It would appear that certain tweaks in routine or methodology could equal the difference -- by the slightest whisker -- between victory and defeat. But the trainers say day-to-day maintenance is most important in the weeks that come before starting. A happy, healthy horse should maintain that form no matter when he arrives at a new oval.
"I think we do it every day," Zito said. "I don't think you could pinpoint one [technique]. If Dale worked his horse a mile, and Kiaran worked his horse three-quarters, and I worked my horse seven-eighths, if they were prepared correctly that month, I don't really think the workouts mean anything that way. I think it's the everyday things you do. You might say, 'Well, what does that have to do with the horse going a mile and a half?' It has a lot to do with it because it's your everyday performance that's important."
"I would agree with him and there's not a whole lot that you can do that's different, especially coming off three weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont," Romans said. "You just want to keep them happy. Nature makes them fast, we just have to make them fit. You just want to get them going a little further and get them used to the racetrack."
Pedigrees also play an influence in training a competitive Belmont runner, and for horsemen who have the luxury, the challenge is to select a horse with the bloodlines to produce strength, speed and stamina.
"A lot of it is in the pedigree and the type of the horse," McLaughlin explained. "Nick has been very successful in buying Triple Crown horses as yearlings. I don't personally buy any yearlings, but I feel like he's one of the best at it. And he's always in the Triple Crown races with his purchases. So he buys that type of pedigree and what he's looking for, not a sprinter."
Horses that will go a mile and a quarter -- strong, sound, distance runners -- have become a rarity, almost a thing of the past. And horsemen admire the runners that win this kind of race, calling them "throwbacks," and the "kind that could run all day."
"The problem with American racing over the last few years is that people have commercialized it so much, they want the fast ones that can sell [at auction]," McLaughlin said. "Nick's been buying the yearlings that can go a mile and a quarter for a long time very successfully, but commercially people want speed, so it's two different types of horses and people."
McLaughlin said his main client, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, has often commented on the lack of American stallions to sire distance runners for his Shadwell Stable.
"I know the Maktoum family would love to have the mile-and-a-halfers because the Epsom Derby is a mile and a half, and Sheikh Hamdan said to me more than once: 'Wow, I wish you had more of an endurance type stallion that we could breed to America,'" McLaughlin said. "And we can't really find many. Dynaformer was one that he liked, but there wasn't that many that he really liked at once that could go the mile and a quarter, mile and a half."
But races like the Belmont and the Breeders' Cup Marathon, which was inaugurated in 2008, may slowly be bringing distance runners back. The latter event helps guarantee that trainers target longer races with their horses -- and that racetracks host such preps as a lead-up to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, which are run in November.
Romans believes this year's crop could inspire a trend back toward the longer events.
"You know, it would be great to have more marathon races," he said. "There's nothing better than a good marathon race in America. This crop may be one that's starting to trend back the other direction. This is a hearty group of horses and even with the changes, with no horse running in all three [Triple Crown Classics], we had big, full fields. The 2-year-old champion ran a lot last year and came back and won the Preakness this year, which is unusual. This is a good group of 3-year-olds, fillies and colts, and hopefully we have a lot to look forward to out of them and maybe we are turning the tables a little bit back the other direction."
Regardless of various techniques and training methods, trainers agree: Competing in the Triple Crown races and arriving at the Belmont with a legitimate starter is quite an accomplishment, and an honor. As is often the case, Zito summed it up best.
"They have been breeding horses for a couple hundred years in America, and that was the idea; to try to get them to go that far, try to get them to go that way," he said. "It's a beautiful thing, the Triple Crown, there's nothing like it. I mean, it may put more gray hairs on your head, but it's just as good as anything else we've got in sports."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.
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