Bill Hartack is a supremely confident jockey. He also considers himself a superior judge of training methods and race strategy. For the 92nd running of the Belmont Stakes last week, however, Hartack was content to accept the instructions of a twinkly-eyed Irishman named Tom Barry: "Drop back 15 lengths off the pace for the first part of it, and don't do any running until you hit the three-eighths pole." Barry trains Celtic Ash, Hartack rode Celtic Ash and Celtic Ash won the Belmont going away.
As the field of seven broke from the gate, the favored Tompion and Venetian Way took the lead together. Tooth and Nail and Disperse were nearest to them, and Celtic Ash, as Barry had ordered, trailed way behind.
The pace was hardly startling—:48 for the half and 1:12 1/5 for the three-quarters. But when Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way took over leadership midway up the backstretch, Tompion was already in trouble. His jockey, Willie Shoemaker, said later: "Every time Tompion runs on a bright sunny day he sees those shadows and tries to jump them. This time he jumped everything he could and tried to run all over the damn track."
Hartack and Celtic Ash had no such problem. Strictly on schedule, Hartack let his horse go at the three-eighths pole. Just before he turned for home, he ranged swiftly up on the outside to overhaul Venetian Way, Tompion and Disperse, and from there on it was simple. Celtic Ash covered the last half mile in :52 and the final quarter in :26, which is not sensational, but nonetheless very creditable and the sort of time that wins an awful lot of races. His final time of 2:29 3/5 was well off Gallant Man's track record of 2:26 3/5. Venetian Way ran a game sort of race to finish second, although beaten five and a half lengths, while Disperse, the King Ranch long shot, was third.
Celtic Ash's triumph in the Belmont is a strong argument in favor of both moderate spring racing and the importation of Irish-raised horses. It was just two years ago that Boston Banker Joseph E. O'Connell came to the Belmont with an Irish-bred colt named Cavan. The horse had been lightly raced in the spring and was at his very peak when he most needed to be. True, Cavan's Belmont win was at the expense of a crippled Tim Tarn, but nonetheless it indicated that the team of O'Connell and Barry had hit on a scheme to bring off the big ones.
Barry, who has been a U.S. citizen for 30 years, was talking about that scheme after Celtic Ash's Belmont. He believes that horses raised in Ireland are ideally suited for mile-and-a-half races. "They take their time with horses over there," said Barry, "and I try to do the same thing with ours. Celtic Ash raced only three times as a 2-year-old, and the Belmont was only his sixth start this season. We wintered in Camden, S.C., and down there I knew I had a horse a little above the ordinary. He's a small, compact colt, and he doesn't need too much work to be at his best."
Owner O'Connell didn't make the Belmont. He was resting in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brighton, Mass., but when he saw the race on television he jumped out of bed for joy. And well he might, for Celtic Ash, which had cost him $22,000 as a yearling in Ireland (and up to last Saturday had won $33,280), had brought home a check for $96,785.
Around the barns this week, some old hands are already paying Celtic Ash the highest of compliments, which is: "This could be any sort of a horse."