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The Belmont

Riding to fame or blame

Triple Crown jockeys must deal with the long wait for the Belmont and the building pressure.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published June 4, 2004

In the spring of 1978, jockey Steve Cauthen reckoned time far differently from any one else.

The calendar might have told him the Belmont Stakes followed the Preakness by just three weeks, but to him, the wait for a shot at history - the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed - seemed interminable.

"The buildup to the last race is obviously tough," Cauthen said recently. "You deal with it. You answer the questions and do what you have to do and hide away and get a little time to yourself when you can."

Not that there was much alone time for him.

And not that there has been much for Stewart Elliott, the journeyman jockey who will look to guide Smarty Jones into thoroughbred racing's exclusive pantheon on Saturday. Only 11 horses have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Affirmed was the last 26 years ago.

"Stew's a very cool customer," said John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones. "He's been in big races for me before. I'm sure this is probably the biggest race of his life in his mind. But he's kind of a lot like me. He knows we have a mission to accomplish and we're going to do the best we can do to get it done ... and he knows what he's sitting on."

If Smarty Jones doesn't win, however, the blame likely will land squarely on Elliott and/or Servis.

When the immortal Secretariat finished a lackluster third in the 1973 Wood Memorial, his final Kentucky Derby tuneup, jockey Ron Turcotte was blamed for misjudging a slow pace. Secretariat and Turcotte rebounded nicely, winning the Triple Crown in smashing fashion with track record times in the Derby and then the Belmont.

"Not to knock anybody, we probably should have had five Triple Crown winners out of the last nine (opportunities)," Turcotte said.

Since 1979, nine horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to come up short three weeks later: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002) and Funny Cide (2003).

"I think there were some mistakes made on five of them, whether it was riding or training," Turcotte said without elaborating.

Spectacular Bid's jockey, Ronnie Franklin, was lambasted after finishing third in the Belmont and, although trainer Bud Delp blamed the loss on Bid's sore hoof, Franklin lost the mount for good.

Kent Desormeaux admitted he moved Real Quiet too early to the lead. He tired down the stretch and was nosed out by the late-charging Victory Gallop.

"I thought I was on the best horse, but the best horse doesn't win all the time," said Jean Cruguet, the jockey on 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.

Cruguet, Cauthen and Turcotte, the jockeys on the last three Triple Crown winners, agree that Servis and Stewart appear to be fashioning their own luck by sticking to their normal regimen. Servis said recently he hadn't talked to anyone for advice about how best to prepare for the Belmont.

But Turcotte and Elliott have talked.

"I gave him the same advice that (Secretariat trainer) Lucien Laurin gave me: "Get up there and do your best,' " Turcotte said. "That's about the only instruction you can give a jockey that's been on the back of the horse all this time."

Cruguet's advice to any jockey on the precipice of history would be to ride some other races on the Belmont card. "Then it won't be such a long day," he said. "I think I won four that day. It was a good day for me."

Turcotte, who was based at Belmont, also rode some winners in addition to Secretariat that day 31 years ago.

"If you're not nervous, you're not human," he said, adding that he was supremely confident in his horse. "Being busy helped me."

So, too, the jockeys agree, was seeing and experiencing the track or simply getting some fresh air.

Anything to pass the time.

"Once you get the horse in the paddock, you're okay," Cauthen said. "Most of us would say, then you're focused on your job; you're ready to go out and get the job done."

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 23:59:12]


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