The old adage that the Belmont Stakes is “The Test of
Champions” held up to its billing, as the entire field was
gasping for air the in the stretch, with Palice Malice as the last colt
standing at the finish line.
Similar to the Kentucky Derby, the early pace for the
Belmont was extremely fast, but unlike the Derby, the son of Curlin was not the
one making the pace. Trainer Todd Pletcher took the blinkers off last Saturday,
and jockey Mike Smith was rewarded with a kinder, calmer Palace Malice, who
relaxed in 4th down the backstretch, challenged for the lead on the
far turn and shook clear of the others late for a 3 ¼ length victory.
After an opening 6 furlongs in 1:10.95, most thought the
runners who completed the Derby trifecta (Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary)
would come running late once again, but they could only muster 3rd,
9th and 5th respectively. On a day when the track race
playing kindly to front runners and closers, how could they not offer a severe
challenge in the final quarter mile considering the final 6 furlongs was run in
a pedestrian 1:19.75? It’s a combination of factors, but easy to explain.
In the Derby, many of the top finishers gallop near the back
of the field for a mile before putting a furious late rally. In fact, the first
4 finishers in the Derby were 16th, 15th, 18th
and 7th after the 4th quickest first half mile in Derby
history. That strategy does not work in the Belmont because of the extra quarter
mile. Horses cannot sustain all-out 4 furlong drives at distances that already
test the outer limits of how far they really want to run. Consequently, the
first 4 finishers in the Belmont were 4th, 2nd, 13th
and 6th after the first half mile.
Why couldn’t they gallop for a mile and a quarter before
putting in that furious late rally in the last quarter mile like the Derby?
They could try, but that rally normally is not that furious considering most horses
are trying to dig deep just to finish, let alone make up ground in the final 2
furlongs that they’ve never completed in any other race.
Track configuration also plays a role as why most late runners
flounder in the Belmont. Everyday jockeys on mounts mid-pack or farther back
generally start to make their moves going into or on the far turn, but since
Belmont Park is 1 ½ miles in circumference this means horses must sustain that
drive for 4 furlongs, not 2. Belmont Stake jockeys with late running are
normally in a Catch 22 regardless of pace. They either try to get their mount to
sustain a 4 furlong drive and come up flat in the final furlong (Orb) or save
as much energy as possible and finish stoutly in the final quarter of the
longest race they will ever run in (Golden Soul). Both solutions are recipes
Palace Malice (sans blinkers) had the perfect running style
(and trip) for winning the Belmont. As Matt Shifman charted 2 weeks ago, runners
that stay within the front half of the field early in the Belmont have a
distinct advantage. Palace Malice stalked a 3-way speed dual, took over from
the tiring front runners without much urging and held on in the stretch despite
looking just as weary as those behind him to be crowned 2013 Belmont Stakes
Result charts courtesy of Equibase