Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM

Justify vs. Big Sandy

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The old adage says that there are a million ways to lose a horse race but just one way to win. Ask any horseman or horsewoman stabled at any racetrack in the world and nearly every one of them would echo that sentiment.

On Saturday, June 9, Justify will look to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert two Triple Crown winners in four years after the sport waited 37 years for American Pharoah in 2015 to do what Affirmed did back in 1978.

Justify will face anywhere from eight to 12 rivals in Belmont Stakes 150. And, as is the case every year, a slew of other obstacles will await him. A majority of the tangible obstacles, like a good post position and clean trip, are things horses face every time they race. Jinxes, curses and racing gods, well they’re a story for another time.

Here in New York, Belmont Park throws one more monkey wrench at Belmont Stakes runners and that’s Belmont Park. What I mean by that is the twelve-furlong racecourse that, depending on your outlook or outcome, has been happily or ominously dubbed “Big Sandy.”

Giant sweeping turns……furlongs of straightaway…..a surprisingly short stretch at just around a quarter of a mile…..Belmont Park is the only main track of its kind in the world. The Belmont is once around the 1 ½ mile oval. It’s worth noting that 11 of the 12 Triple Crown winners had raced over the track at least once in their careers prior to “The Test of the Champion,” with American Pharoah being the lone winner without one.

Located in Elmont, New York, a part of Nassau County on Long Island, it has sat on Hempstead Turnpike for well over a century. But for 12 days over the past four decades, Hempstead Turnpike has turned into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams for the dozen who have failed to reach the zenith.

Let’s take a stroll around Big Sandy and take a look back at where some of the blunders took place and see if Mike Smith can avoid the mistakes of his predecessors.

The Starting Gate – You have so much time to recover if something goes wrong so how important can the start be of a 1 ½ mile race? The answer is plenty, as evident by War Emblem who was slammed at the start in 2002. His rider, coincidentally, was California Chrome’s rider Victor Espinoza, who grudgingly decided this year to ride at Belmont the week prior to the race.

Eleven Furlong Pole – It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the U.S. Just an eighth of a mile into the race one would think it would be nearly impossible for anything earth shattering to happen. In 2008, this is where Kent Desormeaux and Big Brown began to panic and make their escape from the rail draw.

Ten Furlong Pole – Races run at 1 ¼ miles at Belmont, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, start here. It’s right on the bend of the clubhouse turn. Speed types, namely Funny Cide in 2003 established their front running position here.

Nine Furlong Pole – Now we’re getting into some normalcy. Arlington Park has one of these…’s called the finish line. Back in 1981, Pleasant Colony was shuffling back towards the rear as the field raced midway on the first turn.

Mile Pole – This is the finish line on race courses as dirt ovals in American are configured at eight furlongs. Stewart Elliott famously committed Smarty Jones to the lead, just a half mile into the race, here in 2004.

Seven Furlong Pole – The second of nearly four furlongs of straightaway. If you watch closely, this is where Desormeaux started getting a bit antsy on Real Quiet in 1998, likely thinking there was just a half-mile or so left in the race.

Six Furlong Pole – You’re halfway home. Espinoza finally let War Emblem roll a bit along the inside at this point after having him bottled up for most of the backside run behind a wall of three horses.

Five Furlong Pole – This is where business starts to really pick up. Real Quiet started to make a serious run here. War Emblem stuck his head in front. Empire Maker began to close in on his rival Funny Cide. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer moved as a team in 1989.

Half Mile Pole – You’re on top of the far turn now. Spectacular Bid tried to sneak away here in 1979, injured hoof and all. Smarty Jones shrugged off Rock Hard Ten and opened up on the rest. In 1999, Charismatic really put the pressure on the filly Silverbulletday.

Three Furlong Pole – A fevered pitch is reached midway on the far turn. It seems that this is the place where everything goes down. Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic all hit the lead for the first time here. Alysheba, who struggled through most of the Belmont in 1987, got into some traffic trouble here, essentially eliminating himself from contention. War Emblem’s day was done. Funny Cide began his fade. Desormeaux asked Big Brown, who toiled before being eased up at the…….

Quarter Pole – …..and the field turns for home!! Easy Goer vanquished Sunday Silence. You could tell Pleasant Colony wasn’t getting the money. California Chrome tipped to the outside to make his run at immortality but never made a dent.

Eighth Pole – Looking back, close to half the runs to immortality were still alive in or around this point. Spectacular Bid just about gave it up to Coastal. Charismatic was surrounded and passed by one-two finishers Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse. Silver Charm didn’t see a rerallying Touch Gold on the far outside. Yards before the wire, Birdstone ran past Smarty Jones. And Victory Gallop put his head down on the money to deny Real Quiet.

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