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Hall of Fame trainer provides perspective on the Belmont Stakes

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Take a bird's-eye view of Rich Strike's improbable win at the 148th Kentucky Derby.

In the past, I have brought people to Belmont Park for the first time, and they almost invariably have the same reaction: “Where are the horses?” When I point them out on the far side of the enormous oval, they can’t believe how small the horses look from the perspective of the grandstand.

That is one of the things that makes the Belmont Stakes so unique…it’s not just a mile-and-a-half race, but it’s a mile-and-a-half race that is run on a mile-and-a-half oval. It is a race that requires the participants to go once around that oval. Unlike a traditional one-mile oval, the backstretch seems to go on forever, and the sweeping turns take significantly longer to navigate. The uniqueness of the race is demanding for horses, trainers and jockeys. It is probably the longest race on dirt that they will ever compete in, and the fact that it takes them once around the massive oval makes the Belmont Stakes a one-of-a-kind horse race.

To understand the mysteries of the Belmont Stakes, I recently spoke to Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito. His credentials include two wins in the Belmont (Birdstone at 36-1 in 2004 and Da’Tara at 38-1 in 2008). He’s finished 2nd in the race seven times. He is also accomplished in the other legs of the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1991 (Strike The Gold) and 1994 (Go For Gin) and winning the Preakness in 1996 (Louis Quatorze).

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As a lifelong New Yorker, however, the Belmont holds a special place in Zito’s heart. He says one of the first races he ever saw that truly moved him was the 1968 Belmont, when Stage Door Johnny, a horse with remarkable distance pedigree derived from European champions, made a sweeping move under jockey Heliodoro Gustines to capture the race. It was his owners, the Whitney family and their Greentree Stable, that chose to import bloodstock from Europe to breed at Greentree.

Thinking about Stage Door Johnny made Zito also think back to the 1990 Belmont. The winner that year was Go And Go, who had been trained for the marathon distance by the Irish training master Dermot Weld by galloping up hills in Ireland. Finishing 2nd in the race was the Zito-trained Thirty Six Red, who seemed like the only other horse in the race who was properly suited for the mile-and-a-half. His trainer points out that on the female side of Thirty Six Red’s pedigree was none other than Stage Door Johnny. To be sure, breeding means a great deal at this demanding distance.

One of the key questions that handicappers raise every year regarding the Belmont Stakes is “What makes a mile-and-a-half horse?” To be sure, there have been many instances when horses who looked like winners at the top of the stretch would hit that imaginary wall somewhere in the stretch and be caught in the final quarter-mile. As an example, Zito pointed to 2004, when his horse, Birdstone, got up in the final furlong to deprive Smarty Jones of the Triple Crown. Zito knew that Smarty Jones was the best 3-year-old in the country at distances up to a mile-and-a-quarter, but he might be vulnerable at the Belmont distance. The trainer felt that he had a shot if Smarty Jones faced some pressure on the lead (which he did), and Birdstone, owned by Mary Lou Whitney, ran to his pedigree and got up for the win at 36-1 odds.

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As a New Yorker, Nick Zito knows how much the Belmont Stakes means to his hometown. He says that the race is bound to tradition, whether its theme song is Sidewalks of New York, as it was years ago, or Sinatra’s version of New York, New York. He says that New Yorkers genuinely get excited for the Belmont, especially when a Triple Crown is on the line, pointing to the crowd of 120,000 that showed up in 2004 for what they hoped would be a coronation for Smarty Jones. He says we shouldn’t change a thing about the Belmont. “There’s a reason they call it The Test of the Champion, and that comes from the uniqueness of the distance and the spacing of the races,” Zito told me. “Don’t change a thing about the Triple Crown.”

When I asked him if we would ever see trainer Woody Stephens’ remarkable record of training 5 consecutive Belmont winners be matched, he emphatically said no. “It’s like DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak,” Zito said. He pointed to the emergence of horses owned by consortiums of owners and trainers with barns all over the country as some of the reasons why he feels the record will not be matched.

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Experts have often expressed the opinion that the Belmont Stakes is more of a “jockey’s race” than the other legs of the Triple Crown. Jockey strategy and the instructions they have been given by trainers have played a large role in the race’s history. Given that factor, I asked Nick Zito what type of instructions for the Belmont he would give to jockey Sonny Leon if he were the trainer of Rich Strike. He said “I’d tell him we’re in seventh heaven. There’s no pressure, since we’ve already beaten Epicenter and Zandon. Just beware of Mo Donegal, since he might like the distance.” He also added that We The People, the front-running runaway winner of the Peter Pan Stakes, should not be allowed to get on a loose lead, or he could be a serious threat.

The observations of Nick Zito provide remarkable insight into the challenges and uniqueness of the Belmont Stakes. From a betting perspective, however, what type of puzzle will this year’s Belmont be? The big question is how bettors will regard the 80-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby. Many will think that Rich Strike’s win was a fluke and disregard him, which I believe is a huge mistake. He has been impressive in his training since the Kentucky Derby, and the combination of his distance-loving nature and his improving form cycle lead me to believe that he will finish in one of the top 3 spots. I believe his biggest threats will come from four other horses:


  • We The People, a serious pace factor in the race
  • Creative Minister, who was 3rd in the Preakness in only his 4th career start and is likely to improve
  • Mo Donegal, who is made for the distance and can be a late-closing factor
  • Nest, a filly pointed for this race by Todd Pletcher, who won this race with the filly Rags To Riches in 2007

The Belmont Stakes is a race that embraces tradition while asking horses to navigate a distance they will probably never have to navigate again. Every year, whether a Triple Crown is on the line or not, it is a race that is filled with unknown factors until they spring the gate. So, sit back, place a few wagers and watch the mystery unfold in the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

Watch the 154th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 11 from 3 to 5 p.m. ET on CNBC and from 5 to 7 p.m. on NBC. Coverage is also available on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.