ELMONT, N.Y. — Many a world-class jockey has been duped by Belmont's Big Sandy, the 1½-mile monster that separates contenders from pretenders.
Just ask Calvin Borel.
Recently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Borel, a fixture at Churchill Downs, where he has won the Kentucky Derby three times, came to the Belmont Stakes in 2009 seeking an unprecedented jockey Triple Crown. He had won the Derby on Mine That Bird and the Preakness on Rachel Alexandra, who didn't run in the Belmont.
When he was quizzed about the challenges of the Belmont tract, where he had ridden only seven races, Borel dismissed the idea that Big Sandy, with its deep sandy base and wide turns, was a big challenge.
"It's nothing different, just turn left when you get in the turns," said Borel. "It's like any other racetrack."
Not quite, as Borel found out. He made his move too soon and a tiring Mine That Bird finished third. Trainer Chip Woolley said afterward, "I thought Calvin might have moved a hair early."
That's the challenge all 14 jockeys face today in the 145th Belmont Stakes. The smallest men in the race could have the bigger impact on the finish.
"Belmont Park is like the ocean," said jockey Gary Stevens, who has won three Belmonts and will be on Preakness winner Oxbow. "You can have a lot of fun in it, but it can hurt you if you don't respect it."
That's why, more than any other Triple Crown race, this tends to be a jockey's race. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas says he'll make a couple of pre-race recommendations to Stevens, whom he lured out of a seven-year retirement this year, but Stevens needs to adjust to what unfolds during the longest race any of these horses have and probably will ever run in.
"You've got to let him loose," Lukas said. "He's a Hall of Fame jockey."
Lukas and Stevens have developed a bond. At 77, Lukas had begun to fade from a trainer spotlight dominated by younger men such as Todd Pletcher, who learned his craft under Lukas, until 15-1 shot Oxbow won the Preakness for Lukas' Triple Crown-record 14th victory. He did so with a 50-year-old jockey who was enjoying retirement until Lukas called and told him he had a horse he wanted him to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
"When Wayne called me in January, I said to myself, 'Wouldn't that be something,' " Stevens said of winning another Triple Crown race. "Then I said, 'This isn't Hollywood. It's the real world.' "
As real as the demands of navigating Belmont's tract, which could be sloppy after Friday's heavy rains.
Shug McGaughey, who trains Kentucky Derby winner Orb, realizes his jockey, Joel Rosario, has a big task ahead.
"Any time you have a come-from-behind horse, you'd like to see a solid pace, but it's really going to be up to the rider," said McGaughey.
A steady rain began early Friday and was expected to continue through this morning, with as much as 3 inches predicted by the National Weather Service.
If the track comes up wet, Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary — the first three finishers in the Derby run over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs — should be able to deal with it. So, too, should Freedom Child. "I like what I'm seeing," said Freedom Child's trainer Tom Albertrani. "I'm getting all the good signs. He couldn't be doing any better."
The last Belmont run over the slop was two years ago when 24-1 long shot Ruler On Ice won.
Orb, despite his fourth-place finish in the Preakness, is the morning-line favorite, in part because he's Belmont-based.
"We would be very naive to not expect Orb to run back to his Derby form," said Lukas. "It's his homecourt, but you've still got to go there and do it. You can't mail it in."