Part of what makes the Triple Crown both so interesting and so challenging for handicappers is that each of the three races is so very different. They are run at different distances with different field sizes at different tracks, and horses have different amounts of rest for each race. The Kentucky Derby is the hardest of the three races to handicap, but for a lot of different reasons the Belmont isn’t far behind. Perhaps biggest reason that this race is so difficult to handicap is the Belmont track itself. Known as Big Sandy, the dirt course at Belmont is a legendary slayer of giants because it asks things of horses that no other track does.
The defining and unique factor of the track for fans and bettors at Belmont is the length of it. Most major tracks in North America are a mile long. There are just a couple of exceptions – Aqueduct is 1 1/8 miles, and Colonial Downs in Virginia is 1 ¼ miles, for example. At a full mile and a half the main track at Belmont dwarfs the rest of the tracks in the country. It is a total monster. To outsiders it might seem like the extra distance is irrelevant. While it might not seem like much, though, the truth is that it has a significant effect on the races run on the surface.
Because the track is an oval just like every other track in North America there are obviously some major differences in dimensions between this track and others. Simple geometry would tell you that the turns are both longer and wider, and the stretches are significantly longer. That has an effect on every part of the track:
Front stretch – The stretch at the Belmont seems like it goes on forever. It is endless. That has a few significant effects that can affect betting. First of all, jockeys who don’t know the track well can throw their horse into this final charge at the top of the stretch like he normally would only to discover that he has a lot further to run than normal. It’s not uncommon to see horses in big races burn out too early because of poor timing here as a result. The longer stretch also has a significant psychological effect on horses. The stretch is when horses go into battle mode. Up until that point they have likely just been holding their position and saving energy as well as they can. When they enter the stretch they start to engage with horses and actively try to beat them. The longer the stretch is, the more time these horses have to be looking each other in the eye and dueling with each other. That’s a big advantage for the bold horses who shine in the face of these challenges, and it’s an issue for horses that are more meek and less likely to assert themselves and thrive when challenged.
Back stretch – Just like the front stretch, the back stretch at Belmont is impossibly longer. It is functionally even longer than the front stretch because horses run the whole backstretch at once while they only run a portion of the front stretch each time they are on it in most cases. The back stretch is where a lot of horses can get board. It’s in the middle of the race, and jockeys typically aren’t interested in fighting for position or making big moves there. They really only care about getting to the rail, saving ground, and giving themselves as much as they possibly can for the stretch drive. If a horse is anxious or eager then he isn’t going to be happy with this passive approach. Bored horses will often fight with their jockeys, and this fighting can tire out the horse and burn the reserves needed for that final kick. An impatient horse can have real issues at Belmont.
Corners – As is known by veteran handicappers, the tighter the corners are on a track the more advantage a nimble, athletic horse has. Think about when you are driving a car. On a tight corner you have to turn aggressively all the time, while on a slow, sweeping turn you are only barely turning the wheel. The same goes for racing. On a tight corner the horses have to bend their body around the corner, while on the wide turns at Belmont they really don’t. Bigger horses typically don’t bend as well, so they can fare better on bigger tracks. The wide turns also don’t make position on those corners quite as significant, so it allows jockeys to be a bit more aggressive. An aggressive jockey who knows the Belmont surface well so he won’t get fooled by the distances is a dangerous thing at Belmont.
Fewer turns – If horses were to run a mile and a half at most tracks they would have to run around three turns. At Belmont they only have to run two turns. As a bettor you need to realize that there are some horses that thrive on turns and gain an advantage over their opponents because of that, while other horses don’t handle turns nearly as well as straightaways. The size of the track favors some horses over others as a result, and handicappers who are aware of that can be in a position to cash on on some horses that are therefore more attractive than they might seem if they have been running on tracks that are less attractive to them.