Jockey key to Triple Crown attempt
It’s never just about the horse.
If it were, the most exclusive club in sports would have more than 11 members — and at least two more in the past 15 years alone. But human beings keep screwing up the Triple Crown, prolonging a drought that stretches to 1978.
Nobody knows yet whether I’ll Have Another is worthy of joining racing’s all-time greats, as he’ll attempt to do Saturday in the Belmont Stakes. But even if he’s talented enough, there’s a human element that goes into a 1-1/2-mile race with a long history of spoiling Triple Crowns.
And it’s almost never helpful.
“The Triple Crown has been lost due to pilot error several times,” Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said in a recent phone interview. “There’s going to be so much going through this kid’s head.”
This kid would be Mario Gutierrez, a 25-year old from the bush-league tracks in Canada, who has thus far handled the Triple Crown spotlight with an almost preternatural calm. Despite having virtually no experience in major races, Gutierrez rode I’ll Have Another flawlessly in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, setting up what he called his “once-in-a-lifetime chance” to make history.
The Belmont, however, is the greatest challenge yet for both horse and jockey.
Especially the jockey.
There are plenty of things that Gutierrez can’t control. Whether the horse can get the distance and whether he’s still in peak physical form after two rugged races are completely out of his hands.
Everything else, though, is up to Gutierrez once the gates open. And history shows that most of what can happen after that isn’t good.
“It’s very much a strategic race,” said John Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont aboard the filly Rags to Riches. “It’s easy to make a premature move, and that can cost you at the wire. You’ve got to be very patient.”
But when immortality is so close, patience is the hardest thing to control, no matter how experienced the jockey.
In 1979, Ronnie Franklin put Spectacular Bid — thought to be unbeatable — in the middle of a suicidal speed duel with long shot Gallant Best, leaving him leg-weary in the stretch as he faded to third place.
In 1998, Kent Desormeaux circled the field with Real Quiet around the far turn and urged his horse to open up a five-length lead with less than a quarter of a mile left. When he lost the Triple Crown by a nose to the hard-charging Victory Gallop, Desormeaux was blamed for moving too soon.
Then in 2004, Stewart Elliott took previously unbeaten Smarty Jones to the lead and wouldn’t concede it to either Eddington or Rock Hard Ten, who had made early moves on the backstretch. But as the race unfolded and both those horses tired, Elliott seemed to panic, pushing Smarty Jones around the far turn before the next wave of challengers came. Eventually, he was run down by 36-1 long shot Birdstone 50 yards from the wire.
Bailey, who rode Eddington that day, has often been accused of ganging up on Smarty Jones — “A lot of people blame me,” he said — but points to Elliott’s ride as the difference between winning and losing the Triple Crown.
“I dropped off and Rock Hard Ten dropped off and Stewart Elliott moved on his own,” Bailey said. “You have to repel the urge to move when someone moves on you early in the race. He needed to wait a little longer.
“When jockeys get to the far turn at most tracks, it’s pretty much time that you start your move. It’s hard not to do that at Belmont. But you have to remind yourself you’re still five furlongs out at the far turn. So many moves are made premature because that track is so vast, and the biggest challenge is knowing where you are.”
Gutierrez, like Elliott, has never ridden at Belmont, though he’ll have some mounts on Friday and Saturday before the big race. An even bigger issue will be how he adjusts to having the target on his back for the first time.
I’ll Have Another was 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby, a surprise winner that few had considered a serious threat. Even in the Preakness, he was the second choice behind Bodemeister before running him down in a furious photo finish.
Now, for the first time in his career, this race is entirely about him — which might be the most difficult part of the whole deal. Unlike in the Derby and the Preakness, every jockey in the Belmont will know where I’ll Have Another is at all times, and they’ll ride their races accordingly — just as Bailey did in 2004.
“It’s a competition, and everybody’s there to win,” Gutierrez said Tuesday. “It’s a horse race, and everybody does that when you’re on the favorite.”
What matters is how Gutierrez responds. Will he get suckered into a suicide mission, or will he wait until the perfect moment to ask I’ll Have Another for his best?
“I think the target will be on him, but he’s got enough confidence in his ability and the horse that if they go after him he’ll let them go,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “He’s not programmed in a way where he’d get into a little fight within the race. He’ll ride his own horse, which is very important to not get caught up in the emotion of other jockeys trying to intimidate you.”
But nobody knows for sure what Gutierrez will see and feel when he’s a half-mile from history. The Belmont isn’t just about the horse, it’s about whether the person on board can stay out of the way. Gutierrez has done everything right so far, but he still has one more move to make.