NYRA Bets Presents Belmont Countdown: Training For And Riding Test Of The Champion?

A Jockey's Perspective
By Scott Jagow

While Richard Migliore never won a Belmont Stakes in his 30-year career, he rode in half a dozen Belmonts and many other races over the 1 1/2 mile oval. Every year, we hear how the massive track can be a nightmare for unfamiliar riders based on its size, but I wanted to dig a little deeper about jockeys getting a grip on the surface, the race and the big day.

Years ago, there was a common understanding Belmont was an “outside-in” racetrack, meaning the spot to be in throughout the race and turning for home was some distance from the rail. Migliore referred to this as the “Belmont Balcony,” the concept that a horse should keep away from the inside, sweep wide off the final turn and barrel down the middle of the stretch, with the rider anticipating a high degree of success. Ground loss be damned.

Perhaps a long time ago, but Migliore said recent history paints a different picture. Belmont can often be a rail-lovers paradise. He noted jockey Calvin Borel's comments following Mine That Bird's third-place Belmont finish in 2009, when Borel indicated he didn't want to be on the inside.

“There are days when the rail is golden here and then you'll get days where it's still kind of that Belmont Balcony move,” said Migliore. “I think guys that have made mistakes might have gotten caught up in the idea that it only plays one way.”

A prime example, he said, is the 2004 Belmont Stakes where Smarty Jones fell a length short of winning the Triple Crown. While many people criticized jockey and Belmont novice Stewart Elliott for moving too soon, Migliore believes the issue was instead not dropping down to the fence when Elliott had the chance — getting to a rail playing strong that day.

Watch the replay, he said, when Smarty Jones is into the backstretch and Eddington drops back. The opportunity was there to move inside and catch a respite.

“He was just clear of Rock Hard Ten to his inside, and when he didn't take away his path and drop to the fence, he allowed Rock Hard Ten to engage him from the inside after Eddington fell away,” Migliore said.

“So where he would've gotten a least a quarter of a mile breather to be on his own, maybe flick his ears up, get into a good rhythm and breath, he was now getting re-engaged with someone to his inside and Smarty Jones, being a competitive horse, stayed in the bridle and pulled longer than he needed to.”

If he had gotten that breather, Migliore believes Smarty Jones would've had enough left in the tank to hold off 36-1 longshot Birdstone at the wire and complete the Triple Crown long before American Pharoah in 2015.

Pulling is a problem for Belmont Stakes horses, according to Migliore. A horse better suited to the third leg of the Triple Crown is one that can relax and fall into a rhythm.

“Horses that pull can't stay, so if you get a horse that's keen and he pulls, he'll tend to empty out quicker,” he said. “You get a horse that waits on his rider's cues, very rhythmic, he's not trying to get aggressive or do too much.”

In this year's field, a talented horse that concerns Migliore in this respect is Meantime, a promising Shackleford colt who finished second in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, popping a big speed figure.

“I don't see him staying a mile and a half because you watch him train in the mornings and he pulls. I mean, he really pulls. Now some horses pull more in the mornings than in the afternoons, but he seems to have a tendency to be keen. And as much as I like the horse ability-wise, I think that's going to hurt him to get the distance.”

For Migliore, the optimal Belmont horse can relax into a gallop with a high cruising speed. A burst of high acceleration is not required for going a mile and a half. The horse should probably be forwardly placed on his own but not be married to having the lead (unless the horse is exceptional like American Pharoah).

Riders must also pay attention, Migliore said, to how the track is playing. Watch the early races, ride the early races. Scrutinize the warm-ups. Test different paths.

“When you're warming up, what part of the track seems to be drier or looser? It's not so much the depth of the track that causes track bias. It's more where the paths are drier or cuppier, if you will.”

There is also, of course, the well documented issue of gauging the distance remaining in the race. Heading into the far turn at Belmont is a far cry from making the usual move on a one-mile track. Jockeys accustomed to leaning into their horses at that point usually regret the decision to do so at Big Sandy. They tend to get a bit lost, and jockeys have habits just as horses do.

“By the time they realize they've given that cue, you can't take it back,” Migliore said. “It's not like driving a car where I step on the accelerator and now I'll back off a little bit. The majority of horses can't do that. Once you start your forward progress, you kind of got to go with it.”

Migliore also advises new riders to get into town as soon as possible, not only to suss out how the track is playing, how to ride the monster configuration of Belmont, but also to be comfortable in the surroundings when the big day is approaching.

“There's so much to it, comfort zone wise, the routine of a jockey's room,” he said. “What time do they call to check your weight for the race? When do they have you head out to the paddock? You want to be very comfortable in a place. All these little things, where am I going? And you get a little confused. I think it takes away from your focus. You want to feel settled like you belong in a place, not like you're the visitor coming into the home team's locker room.”

The Belmont Stakes has been called a rider's race by some, a pedigree race by others. Where does The Mig fall on this point? He's gobbling it all up. He's spent much of this week considering the pedigree perspective.

“A horse like Gormley has a pedigree that says he should get all of a mile and a half and I've never thought of him as a horse that wants to go long distances,” he said. “But his pedigree says otherwise. He is kind of a steady galloper, so he's become more interesting to me because of the pedigree angle.”

A jockey obviously has to have the horse, Migliore said, but with a horse that can win the Belmont, being too aggressive is a recipe for failure. When we spoke, he hadn't landed on one contender as his final pick, but besides Gormley as an intriguing pedigree play, he also liked Tapwrit and longshot Senior Investment as a sneaky player.

“He's a closer but I don't think he's slow. I think he can find himself in a decent spot if they're not going quick. He wasn't on my radar but watching him train at Belmont, I like the way he gets over the track. And Kenny McPeek seems to have a pretty good handle on getting horses ready to go marathon distances.”

His final take on the jockey lens for the Belmont is that riders shouldn't go into the race with too many preconceived notions. Pay attention, he said, and take advantage of what's going on in the moment.

A Trainer's Perspective
By Natalie Voss

The old trope at the start of any Belmont Stakes (or Kentucky Derby) preview is it's hard to know which entrants will take to the 1 ½ mile distance because none of the field has ever been that far. In this year's projected field, just a handful have been as far as 1 ¼ miles before now. The third jewel of the Triple Crown, run over one of the larger and more exhausting sandy tracks in the country, is intended to test endurance.

But how can a trainer know, without a race to show it, whether a horse is made for distance?

Most of it comes down to pedigree, according to veteran conditioner and 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Christophe Clement. If both parents have a history of running distance, Clement said the foal almost always will. Having one parent with distance in their past performance still makes the offspring a strong candidate for a distance race.

When it comes to training, Clement said he's not inclined to drastically alter the way he conditions a distance horse versus a sprinter. There's really no way, in Clement's view, to train a horse to race over a longer distance; rather, it's about recognizing which ones have potential for longer races and supporting that potential with sufficient fitness.

Perhaps surprisingly, Clement does not alter the length of his horses' works on gallop days based on the length of their races. There is no formula determining how many furlongs a horse will gallop, and it's based more on the individual's fitness and running style. Instead, Clement will require the horse to vary its speed through the gallop or workout, usually asking a distance horse for a bit more throughout a standard gallop.

“I think they either stay or they won't stay, but you can make them fitter,” he said. “One, pedigree is huge tool to tell you where to run your horses. Two, training obviously to see how much speed they show. Not stamina, but speed versus no speed. We don't know if it's stamina or if they are just are no good in the beginning. By the time they run, if they don't show speed in the morning and don't show speed in the race, but they keep getting better as you stretch them out, it's a pretty obvious sign.”

Surface also plays a role in the amount of conditioning Clement puts into a distance horse.

“Usually, you're more aggressive with a dirt horse than you are with a turf horse because you've no room for mistakes when you run on dirt,” he said. “You have to reach a level of fitness. The firmer turf will carry you, the farther you travel. On dirt, whoever gets the least tired will win the race.”

Although a closer will need a strong kick in the last one or two furlongs, Clement said a horse cannot be taught to put on that burst of speed.

“You can't teach that, no,” he said. “They either do it or they don't. We train them to be as fit as they can. The turn of foot at the end of the race, if the jockeys save them within the race, obviously you expect them to have a better turn of foot, but they either do it or they don't.”

For Clement, the whole process of preparing a horse for a distance race like the Belmont is about fitness.

“t's not complicated,” he said. “Go back to basics, which is, as long as the horse is fit and feeling good, the best horse usually wins.

“It's not about us as the trainer. It's about the horse, with the way they act and the way they look and the way they run. They tell us what to do. It's not us, to build them up in the program to build them up and make them stayers. The horse himself will tell us, and each individual horse will be different.'

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The post NYRA Bets Presents Belmont Countdown: Training For And Riding Test Of The Champion? appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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