The Belmont Winner - Track or Jockey?

By: Ben Burns     Date: Jun 6, 2015

It has been written many times about the grueling toll, attempting to win the Triple Crown, takes on a horse. But is it really the 3 races in such a short time, capped off by the long distance of the race at the Belmont, or is it the Jokey who ultimately decides who wins?

I would like to argue that much will depend on the split-second decisions made by American Pharoah's jockey, Victor Espinoza and his counterparts, in this tough mile-and-a-half contest that tests mental decitions of the riders as much as it does the stamina of horses.

American Pharoah is the 14th horse to sweep the first two legs since Affirmed. Looking at the past Triple Crown challengers there are numerious examples where these Triple Crown bids were lost because riders got in the way of their horses. The most talked about example was in the 1979 challenge by Spectacular Bid, once described by Bud Delp, his trainer, as the “best horse that ever looked through a bridle.”

Spectacular Bid had two things go wrong in that year’s Belmont Stakes. He stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race, and in the afternoon he had jockey Ronnie Franklin, then 19, holding the reigns. Franklin lost the race when he gave pursuit to Gallant Best, an 85-1 long shot, through the opening portion of the race, running at a blistering pace that was completely illogical for the Belmont marathon.

Twenty years later, Delp still had not forgiven Franklin. He said of Spectacular Bid in an article published by the Los Angeles Times on June 3, 1999: “Even with the pin, he was a cinch. But he couldn’t overcome that ride.”

In 1998, Kent Desormeaux was criticized for moving too soon when Real Quiet, trained by Bob Baffert (as is American Pharoah), opened a four-length margin in the long home stretch, only to be run down and beaten by a nose by Victory Gallop and Gary Stevens.

Mike Pegram, who owned Real Quiet, called the narrowest margin of defeat with a Triple Crown at stake “the ultimate head bob.” Pegram added: “My personal view was that Kent and the horse lost focus about the eighth pole. Here came Gary and the rest is history.”

Stewart Elliott was second-guessed for moving prematurely with the 2004 Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones after early challenges in the Belmont from two other horses. “He was not patient with Smarty Jones and it cost him the race,” said John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame rider. “If you are patient, you will be rewarded.”

Consider also that American Pharoah's jockey, Espinoza, has really struggled posting a 4-for-73 career record at Belmont Park!

So, before you go off and proclaim American Pharoah the first Triple Crown Winner in the last 37 years, don't forget that jockeys might just have a bigger impact than the famed track!

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