ELMONT, N.Y. -- People talk about the Belmont Stakes being a rider's race, and that's true for a lot of reasons. Belmont Park is a place that takes a little time to get used to, so hopefully if you're riding a Belmont contender, you've ridden here a bunch or you've been able to at least get on some horses and get comfortable with it. Whatever the case, you're definitely paying more attention to where you are on the track.
I don't mean that we don't pay attention in every race, every day. But most of the time, it's not like you're riding a race and you're looking at the poles. Everything's by feel. You automatically sense where you are during the race; you know what poles are going by, you know what poles are coming up, you know where the turn is. It's just a sixth sense that riders develop through experience. Most of our racetracks in North America are a mile and they're all set up the same, so you just know where things are. When you start coming up the backside and you can feel the turn coming up, it pops into your subconscious, "Oh, the three-eighths pole is coming up!"
That's not the case here. The five-eighths pole is almost at the point of the turn, and when you actually get into the turn you still have a half-mile to go, and in the middle of the turn there's still three-eighths of a mile to go. When I first rode here, I rode a couple of races and even won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But my first time that I came and I stayed for a little period of time, I came out to work a couple of horses in the morning. I was galloping to the pole; I was actually going to break off at the half-mile pole. I started up the backside and all of the sudden I saw a red and white pole and I thought to myself, "Oh boy, I've gotta start!" And then I looked up I saw another red and white pole way up there and it was like, "Whoops, whoops, whoa, hold up!" When you see the red and white pole and you're halfway up the backside you automatically assume it's the half-mile pole, but here it's really almost a quarter-mile difference. Also, Belmont is a deep, sandy racetrack. Some horses get across it better than others. It's a different kind of surface than most racetracks.
So there are little secrets to this place. It's a big oval and when it comes to running down to the wire, you can move too soon. Then, in a mile-and-a-half race, you'd think you want to sit as long as possible, but that's not necessarily always the case. It's easy to wait too long here, but it's also easy to move too soon. And sometimes in a longer race you're concerned about saving ground, but here at Belmont that might not always be a good thing to do, because the inside can be kind of dead.
It depends on the horse, too. If you have a good horse and you leave the gate and find a good spot and a good trip plays out for you, you should be fine. If you're mid-pack or something like that and you have to maneuver through horses, then I guess you could kind of go off somebody's ride and say, "Well, if he had known this place, the result could have been different ... "
A few of the horses that I consider to be legitimate contenders on Saturday are Uptowncharlybrown, Fly Down, and First Dude. Uptowncharlybrown is a horse that's gonna run well for sure. I rode him last time in the Lexington when he finished third. He's a big, strong horse and he's got a little tactical speed that can put him up somewhere in the race, not necessarily on the lead but in a good stalking position. When I rode him he just seemed like a horse that wanted to go a mile and a half.
Fly Down's another one of those horses that doesn't necessarily want to be on the lead but he can be right on top of them if he needs to be. In most of his races at Gulfstream Park and here the pace was fairly strong and he was four, five, or six lengths off of them. Going a mile and a half, you can put him in the race.
The Belmont is a stayer's race too, but when you start to run up the backside, horses that are within five lengths of the leader are usually the horses that run the best. It's a pretty unusual situation because they don't have any other races for 3-year-olds that they really run a mile and a half, so other than being a part of the Triple Crown, it's not necessarily something that you really seek to a achieve with a horse as far as breeding and conditioning are concerned. They want a horse that will go a mile and a quarter, sure, but they're looking for something in between the milers and the mile and a quarter horses. In most of our breeding now we're going for horses that can sprint and maybe go a route of ground. Of course in a perfect world you look for a horse that can do everything, but it's not your specific goal to say "I want to breed a horse that will go extremely long."
Another nice thing about Uptowncharlybrown, Fly Down and First Dude is that they're lightly-raced. They might be a little disadvantaged in terms of seasoning, but at the same time they make it up by being fresh contenders. You look at some of these 3-year-olds at this point in the season and they've run quite a few times -- eight times, nine times, seven times. And one more note as far as First Dude is concerned: in the Preakness when he got headed, he came back and was still trying and still staying on, so he showed that he's a nice horse for sure in that race.
I saw that Ice Box was made the morning-line favorite based off his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby, but here's my concern with that: in his last couple races he's been way out the back door. Granted, early on in his career he was fairly close, but with the way he's been running recently and because I don't see the pace being extremely fast, I feel like he might be too far back. He might not have any pace to run into. On paper it looks like he wants to go the mile and a half but if they slow the first quarter down, it could take him right out of play.
We'll see how it all pans out on Saturday. On Thursday, I get a day off and take my wife to the airport because she flies back home to California after a few days out here to visit me. Then I ride Monmouth Park on Friday and here on Saturday, and Monmouth on Sunday. People want to know if it's tiring but to tell you the truth, it's not really hectic. When I come here to New York, it's not like I'm getting on 10 a day; I'm coming to ride a couple nice horses for a couple guys. It's also not really a bad drive. I live about 10 minutes from the track in New Jersey and it takes me about an hour and 10 minutes to get here, so that's not a big deal. It's a nice drive because you cross the outer bridge and even the New Jersey Turnpike when you first get on is pretty, it gives you some scenery.