Cup of coffee: Two Furlongs

Two Furlongs

It started out as a feature. Talk to trainers and jockeys about the Belmont Stakes at 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park at the Belmont Stakes at 1 ¼ miles at Saratoga. Talk about horses who won there but would not have won here. And the ones who would have won here and not there. 

I made a long list. Cordero. Pincay. Smith. Velazquez. McCarron. McGaughey. Tagg. Drysdale. Baffert. Zito. Oh, hell, I was going to find Gleaves and Donk and ask them about Woody’s five and dig up some memories from James Rowe.

Best laid plans… 

Instead, it became four conversations over four days and a column in the back. Four chats with four Hall of Fame trainers. Each with Belmont Stakes wins and Belmont Stakes losses. I tried to steer the conversations…a bit.

The first was D. Wayne Lukas. Tuesday morning, the 88-year-old Hall of Famer sat outside Preakness winner Seize The Grey’s stall. You’ve read some of it over the past few days.

Lukas thinks pragmatically, unemotionally and came up with the most obvious one of all. 

“Charismatic would have definitely won this race at a mile and a quarter,” Lukas said.

I winced when he said his ill-fated name. Winner of the first two legs and injured in the final strides of the final one. The clarity of two furlongs.

 “Probably the best horse to do what we tried to do was Thunder Gulch,” Lukas continued. “He was amazing, little horse who showed up every time. Mile and a half, mile and a quarter, it didn’t make any difference to him.”

Lukas scrolled through his four Belmont wins and all his Belmont losses. 

“Looking back at the Belmont winners, it absolutely fit Commendable,” Lukas said. “He was eligible for a non-winners or two. I remember (Bobby) Frankel, he had Aptitude, saying, ‘What are you doing in here?’ I said, ‘I’m running in here.’ ” 

Commendable stalked in second. Aptitude lagged in 10th. They finished one-two.

“When you get to the mile and a half it’s a certain horse. A mile and a quarter you open the door,” Lukas said. “They always talk about the fanbase and holding the race together, if they ran the Belmont at a mile and a quarter, you’d find where you’d have a better field, and more horses would be in it. Oh, I’d run this horse a mile and a half. In a heartbeat.”

The next morning, I asked Bill Mott a similar question.

“Damn near any of them I’ve run. Except for Drosselmeyer,” Mott said when asked which of his Belmont starters would have run better here. “Most of them weren’t even suitable to go a mile and a quarter. Drosselmeyer would have been a possibility to win here. Vision and Verse got beat a zop in the Belmont. I don’t know if he would have been better here. He was second in the Travers. To Lemon Drop Kid. Both times.”

Mott pulled out his phone and started scrolling. I wasn’t sure if he was finished with the conversation, or he was doing research.

“Tacitus. He was second in the Belmont. He always looked like he needed one more furlong no matter the distance,” Mott said. “At the quarter pole, he was 4 ½ off, got beat a length, closing. Hard to say if he would have been better here.”

Eleven weeks after finishing second in the Belmont Stakes, the son of Tapit finished second in the Travers. I guess I’d take that as a no.

Friday morning, I joined Todd Pletcher on his walk from the Oklahoma to his barn. 

“One of my Belmont horses…” Pletcher said. “You take a horse like Dunkirk who led most of the way, maybe it would have changed for him or something. That’s possible. I can’t think of one specific one. Might have evened out, one of the eight who finished second might have won.”

A distance change certainly wouldn’t have mattered to one of his four winners. 

“Rags To Riches would have been OK anywhere from a mile and a quarter to two miles,”

Pletcher said.

Pletcher changed the game but doesn’t want the Belmont to change. 

“I guess I’m probably one of the few people that’s disappointed that it’s not a mile and a half,” Pletcher said. “It seems like the right thing. Historically. Traditionally. All that. I certainly understand that it couldn’t be a mile and a half here, but the question is could it have been a mile and five eighths? I’m sure most people would object to it…maybe not this year, but other years, I would be OK with that.”

A couple of hours later, Steve Asmussen jumped into the conversation. 

“That’s a great question. Curlin. How good he ran here. He proved how much he liked Saratoga,” Asmussen said. “Gun Runner, how in the hell did I ever get him beat? Him, yeah, here. Holy ****. It’s the Travers. Early.”

Gun Runner skipped the Belmont and finished third in the Travers. The next year, he dominated the Whitney and the Woodward. 

Ever a dreamer, Asmussen has thought a lot about the Belmont at Saratoga. 

“I’m excited that it’s here and I’m excited to see how it goes. Being up here in early June is fun. It’s just fun,” he said. “I love the tradition of the Belmont at a mile and a half. This is nice and it’s great to be in Saratoga. Great horses and great racing but the Belmont makes the Triple Crown what the Triple Crown is.”

Enjoy Belmont at Saratoga 2024-25. See you back at Belmont Park 2026. 

Read The Saratoga Special – all 48 pages of it.