Like a pair of wise old owls sitting in an oak, Gary Stevens and Mike Smith found themselves in a state of solitude as the field for Saturday’s 145th running of the Belmont Stakes swung around the sweeping bend that would lead them to the straightaway for the run to the finishing post. For it was at this point that Stevens, riding Preakness winner Oxbow, and Smith, aboard Aiken-based Palace Malice, began to obtain separation from the others.
Unlike Churchill Downs and Pimlico, with infields full of raucous observers on Derby and Preakness day, there is a quietness about Belmont Park and its huge mile-and-a-half oval, even during the running of a major race. The half-mile pole, located in the initial stages of that far turn, is a long way from the grandstand. And as Stevens and Smith left the hoof beats of the rest behind at that point in the race, a display of master craftsmanship was unfolding.
The statement that, “Pace makes the race,” is a truism widely recognized and adopted by racing fans and handicappers. However, the notion that a swift pace always favors horses coming from behind, while a slow one sets up frontrunners, is an over-simplification.
In the true exercise of the art of race riding - especially in an event for higher class horses over a distance of ground - the jockeys, who will control or attend the pace, want to go just fast enough in the race’s opening stages to pull rivals expected to come from behind out of their comfort zone. For if the stretch runners have to run faster than they want to early just to keep up, their closing punch will be lessened. But it’s a two-edged sword, for if the pace is too swift, the leaders will have nothing left for the run for the money.
In this Belmont, Stevens had Oxbow head and head for the lead through a first half mile in :46 and 3/5ths seconds. Smith and the Malice were stalking, two lengths behind. The first half mile in the Belmont Stakes is customarily run somewhere between :48 and :50. One must go back seventeen years to find the last time the half mile fraction was less than :47 in this classic.
Under the circumstances, supporters of Orb and Revolutionary must have been salivating. Surely, they thought, this pace would cook any horse near the front. But a funny thing happened on the way to the front side. As Stevens and Smith edged away from their competitors – and at a place where many riders would have been setting their mounts down, asking for their best – the two owls sat chilly and slowed the pace down.
The quarter mile run on that turn took 26 and 3/5ths seconds - walking horse time. As this gallop neared conclusion, Palace Malice began getting the better of Oxbow and Stevens passed some encouragement on to Smith. “Go on, little brother,” Stevens imparted. “You’re moving better than me. Just ride off to your win.”
“But don’t leave me yet,” Stevens concluded, as the pair continued to bleed the yards remaining to the finish without putting any pressure whatsoever on their mounts. And down the stretch they came, Palace Malice and Smith dancing home to victory and Oxbow and Stevens easily holding second.
In most fields of sport, the career of an athlete approaching 50 years of age is a memory – often a distant one. For Smith, 47 years of age, and Stevens, now in his second career at 50 flat and coming back from seven years of retirement, there is abundant experience to go with the talent that has kept them at the top of their game for decades.
Stevens has been in racing’s Hall of Fame since 1998; Smith since 2003. On Saturday afternoon, the wise old owls showed why.