A fixture on the New York circuit a decade ago, Mike Smith won 15 riding titles in the Empire State, including seven at Belmont Park, before becoming a regular in Southern California in 2007.
Who better, then, to ask about how to successfully negotiate Belmont Park’s monstrous mile and a half course, what with Victor Espinoza and California Chrome’s imminent pursuit of the Triple Crown in Saturday’s 146th Belmont Stakes.
“The horses have never run that far and you never know until they do it,” said Smith, who won last year’s Belmont with Palace Malice and the 2010 Belmont on Drosselmeyer. Smith rides 30-1 morning line outsider Matuszak against California Chrome on Saturday.
“The turns are real deceiving,” Smith said. “Belmont is so big. It’s not that the stretch is so long, because it really isn’t. But the turns are humongous.
“Timing is really important, because you normally move a lot different in New York, but I don’t see any reason California Chrome wouldn’t get the mile and a half. It wasn’t like he was just hanging on (winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness) . . . He was finishing up really good . . . Barring anything going wrong, he’ll be extremely difficult to beat.”
One would think going a mile and a half, horse and rider would have ample time to overcome any problems in the Belmont Stakes, but it ain’t necessarily so says retired Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who captured the Belmont three consecutive years, in 1982 (Caveat), 1983 (Conquistador Cielo) and 1984 (Swale).
“The break is always important,” said Pincay, a fit-looking 67. “Look what happened to War Emblem and Big Brown. War Emblem went to his knees and Big Brown stumbled or did something leaving the gate.
“Then he was trying to get out on the first turn, and it was rough. Some horses have to have the right trip to win. If they don’t, they’re not going to win. That’s what happened with both of those horses.
“You have to break cleanly and be out of trouble, and they didn’t. You can’t stop and start a horse, especially when the pace is slow and the other horses have the advantage of a clean trip. They’re just going to keep going.
“It helps if you’ve ridden over that course and you know the track. You can get confused. California Chrome is a good horse and (Victor) Espinoza knows him well. I don’t think it’s going to be a fast pace. If it is, Victor can take his horse back, or he can be on the lead. That’s the good thing about this horse.
“It’s a disadvantage for some horses to be on the lead, but not with California Chrome. If he’s on the lead, he’s going to win.
“That’s what I liked about him in the Santa Anita Derby. He went to the lead and he opened up anyway like nothing happened.
“You have to ride some horses a certain way. California Chrome has proved he can win in front or coming from behind. He’s the best horse.”
Added retired Hall of Fame riding great Eddie Delahoussaye, who won the Belmont in 1988 with Risen Star and in 1992 with A.P. Indy: “If California Chrome runs his race, he’ll win. I won the Belmont on A.P. Indy from the three hole. I don’t think a mile and a half will be a problem for Chrome because he rates so well.”
It will be a three-ring circus at Belmont Park Saturday as California Chrome pursues the Triple Crown. Three-thousand miles away in Santa Anita’s jockeys’ room, it will be a three-ring circus in miniature as friends and fellow riders of Chrome’s regular jockey, Victor Espinoza, will be rooting for the popular veteran to end a 36-year winless span and capture the elusive Triple.
“I’m happy for him and I hope he does,” said Santa Anita’s Spring Meet riding leader Joe Talamo. “It would be good for California racing and good for the sport, too. I haven’t looked at the past performances but he looks like the lone speed. If no one really goes with him, he should be tough.”
Said jockey Aaron Gryder: “I think we’re all excited that Victor has this opportunity. It’s always fun when the rider is out of your room and your home state. Victor’s fun in the jocks’ room and a playful guy who’s very likable. We all root for horse racing, but when you’ve got local connections involved, there’s more to cheer for. Everybody hopes he comes though.”
Added jockey Joe Steiner: “When he won the Preakness, the roof almost came off in the room. Guys were screaming and yelling and hitting the couch. That’s the one thing about us jocks; we’re out there to win, we’re out there to beat each other. We’re deeply competitive, but when it comes to something like this, we’re all behind him 100 percent.”