Nobody knows better than Bob Baffert, the only trainer to lose the Belmont three times with horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, what the final 1 1/2 miles on the Triple Crown trail can do to a horse, trainer and jockey.
"When you get beat by an inch like that, it's easy to say, 'Did he do this, did he do that?' " Baffert said. "You got 1 1/2 miles and you get beat by an inch, what are the chances of that?"
The three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont can be agonizing for the human connections around a horse.
"Things can happen," Baffert said. "You're trying to read your horse, trying to keep him happy. Will he get the 1 1/2 miles, will he get the pace, the track? There's so many little things."
Six times in the past 11 years, horses have come to the Belmont with a chance to match Affirmed's 1978 feat. None succeeded. Now it's Big Brown's turn to try.
"He's a superior race horse," Baffert said about Big Brown. "He's handy, he has speed, he's tactical, he can stay out of trouble, he breaks well. I think the horse is the real deal."
Baffert thought that about Real Quiet 10 years ago. The colt owned a five-length lead with a quarter-mile left in the Belmont. Victory Gallop, second in the Derby and the Preakness, moved up on Real Quiet and jockey Kent Desormeaux, who rides Big Brown. The horses crossed the wire inches apart, but Victory Gallop won by a nose in a photo finish. A stride past the finish line, Real Quiet had regained the lead.
"I thought he won it," Baffert said. "Now Kent gets a mulligan and he gets to do it again."
Smarty Jones was the last colt to make a Triple Crown try in 2004. He came into the race on the track with its deep, sandy dirt surface undefeated at 9-0. Big Brown is perfect, too, at 5-0.
Nicknamed "The Test of the Champion," the Belmont is uncharted territory for 3-year-olds who have never run that far in their lives and likely won't again.
"They don't have any way to prep for it, and they don't have any use for it afterward," said John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones. "It's an odd race in this time of their careers."
The Triple Crown is run on a compressed schedule, with the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont just five weeks apart. Each race varies in distance and the fields are crowded, with 20 horses typically contesting the Derby.
The Belmont is a race of strategy, with jockeys making split-second decisions on pace, placement and when to start their final run to the wire. Go too soon and a young colt could be gassed for the 1,097-foot stretch run. Wait too long and risk letting the lead horses get away.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is 0-for-11 in the Belmont. He saw Big Brown up close while riding Gayego in this year's Derby and Preakness.
"It's certainly a race that can fool you," he said. "A horse that wins the Belmont seems to be up close to the pace or on it. They got that rhythm and they fall into it."
In 2004, Smarty Jones might have moved too soon. The small black colt had trouble relaxing with horses on either side of him. So jockey Stewart Elliott guided him into the lead entering the backstretch with a mile left.
"The last thing you want to do at Belmont is move too soon," Servis said. "If you start to make your move at the (stretch) turn, that wire isn't at the eighth-pole."
Big Brown gets fresh sutures
NEW YORK --- Big Brown has new sutures in his hoof, and trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. says his unbeaten colt "knows it's time to get ready" for a shot at the Triple Crown.
There was concern when Big Brown missed three days of training this week with a slight crack on the inside of the left front hoof. Hoof specialist Ian McKinlay inserted steel sutures Monday to pull the crack together and changed them Saturday.
"The little crack looks like it's in pretty good shape," Dutrow said from Belmont Park. "It's not bugging the horse in any kind of way. Ian is very happy with it. We're right on course, right on target."