With 18 Belmont Stakes mounts since 1982, Jerry Bailey (left) has ridden in the race more often than any other active jockey. He has won twice: atop Hansel, in 1991, and last year with Empire Maker. This Saturday, Bailey is expected to go to the post aboard Eddington, whom he rode to a third-place finish in the Preakness.
In other races traffic and positioning are critical, but that's not the case in the Belmont. At a mile and a half the race is so long and the track so big that you've got time to make up for any early traffic trouble.
The Belmont is all about pace, about controlling your horse's speed for as long as you can. And that makes it a rider's race. You want to keep your horse relaxed until it's time to ask him for his best. You can tell when your horse is going too fast, but more important, you can tell if he's relaxed. You should just let him find his rhythm early on.
Because the race is so long, even the front-running horses tend to try to conserve energy early, so more Belmonts than you would think are won by horses laying close to the front. Horses that come from far back can run into trouble because they have to negotiate a lot of traffic to make the lead.
I think I really made the difference the year I won on Hansel. He liked to lay up close, sometimes on the lead, but I restrained him just off the leader around the first turn. With about seven furlongs to go, which is still a bit early in a 12-furlong race, he got aggressive, and instead of fighting him, I let him out a little bit. He moved up to the lead at about the five-eighths pole, and with a quarter mile left I let him go. I wanted to get the biggest lead I could so that late-running Derby winner Strike the Gold, who was the horse I feared, might have to go wide or get stuck in traffic. It probably helped me win because Strike the Gold came flying at us late, and we hung on by a head.
Smarty Jones makes it so easy for Stewart Elliott because he's a very handy horse. He helps a rider by positioning himself and by having more than one run. You can move him up, and then he'll idle. You can move him again, and he'll idle. He's like a car. He can adjust to almost any pace.
Stewart will have to decide when, and how much, to let Smarty go. So far he's done an excellent job, not panicking in traffic around the first turn in the Derby and not getting in a hurry at the Preakness, waiting until Smarty was ready to go before tucking inside Lion Heart on the turn for home. He has ridden two flawless races. There will be a lot of pressure in the Belmont, but Smarty Jones is going to make Stewart's job much easier. If he runs like he has been running, nobody can beat him.