Thoroughbred Racing Fan Association, Inc.
Espinoza Showed the Importance of the Jockey in a Horse Race
“You can ride ‘em as fast as they can run” is a saying among exercise riders on the backside of most racetracks across America. Yet, it will take more than that to win the Belmont Stakes (GI) and the Triple Crown this Saturday at Belmont Park. Thirteen horses have had a chance at the Triple Crown by winning the Kentucky Derby (GI) and the Preakness Stakes (GI), but failed to win the Belmont Stakes (GI). The last to do it was Affirmed in 1978.
Why this thirty-seven year drought? The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Inc. gathered the last three jockeys that won the Triple Crown together for a conference call last week. They were asked to discuss why the last leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes (GI), is so difficult to win. Although they all had tremendous praise for their horses, the importance of the jockey came up over and over.
Although some pundits minimize the role of the jockey, in big races, like the Belmont Stakes (GI),the jockeys are key. It has even been said that, “a jockey can’t make a bad horse win, but can make a good horse lose.”
Ron Turcotte, jockey on Secretariat (1973), emphasized the importance of judgement in winning the classic races. He recalls how he lost the Belmont Stakes on Tom Rolfe in 1965. He said [I] “moved..too soon, too fast and made a premature move. I told the trainer when I got off the horse, ... the horse didn’t lose the race; I lost it.”
Steve Cauthen, the jockey on Affirmed (1978) agrees, but focuses more on the Belmont track itself. The mile and a half oval is the largest in the country with big sweeping turns. “I think it certainly helps to...spend some time riding around Belmont, because it is just a unique track” Cauthen said. The immense size of the track makes it easy to get disoriented heading down the backstretch, especially with a herd of other horses in the mix. Cauthen continues, “when you’re at the half mile pole at Belmont and you feel like you’re at the three eighths pole (an eighth of a mile farther from the finish line) on a normal track...it is just easy to make a mistake if you don’t ride there [Belmont Park] regularly.”
A memorable example of jockey judgement error was the 2004 Belmont Stakes where Smarty Jones ridden by Stewart Elliot, a seasoned jockey from Pennsylvania, made a premature move. The pace seemed slow so Elliot took Smarty Jones to the front on the backstretch. Although he was pressed by Rock Hard Ten And Eddington, he pulled away to a four length lead. In deep stretch the early move caught up to him as Birdstone, who had his race timed perfectly by jockey Edgar Prado, passed Smarty Jones just before the finish line to win and spoil his chances at making history.
For the 2014 Belmont Stakes, Victor Espinoza could not squeeze the last few drops of energy from California Chrome in the 2014 Belmont Stakes and finished in a dead-heat for fourth. He is back this year on the favorite American Pharoah hoping to learn from his experience last year.
In the starting gate this year will be four Hall of fame jockeys: John Velasquez (2012), Kent Desormeaux (2004), Mike Smith (2003) and Gary Stevens (1997).
In addition, in the gate are three jockeys with good horses and with plenty of Belmont Park racing experience: Joel Rosario, Javiar Castellano and Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Joel Rosario, a Belmont Park meet title winner, won the Belmont last year on Tonalist. He is riding Frosted this year who finished 4th in the Kentucky Derby. Javiar Castellano has been on the top of the leader board for jockeys at Belmont Park numerous times. He will ride Madefromlucky. Irad Ortiz, a young rider making a name for himself at Belmont Park, will be on the Preakness Stakes second place finisher, Tale of the Verve. Finally, Hall of Famer and local favorite, John Velasquez, will ride Materiality, the Florida Derby winner.
The classic races attract the top jockeys in the country who have years of experience race riding. They have near perfect pace acumen. Four of the eight jockey’s in Saturday’s race have honed their racing skills on the Belmont track. That could be the difference.
As Steve Cauthen reminds us, “Nobody’s going to give it to him [American Pharoah], and they’re not supposed to. ...it’s a huge race to win...it’s a classic race...there a lot of guys that never won a classic that’ll be trying to win it.”
Matching the right horse with the right rider may provide the key to this year’s Belmont Stakes.