May 31st 2015 02:42 am |
In 1968, Daily Racing Form writer Joe Hirsch interviewed jockey Eddie Arcaro. In the interview — available in full online at the University of Kentucky — Hirsch asked Arcaro: “Was there any Belmont [Stakes] that you should have won that you didn’t?” Arcaro answered very cooly: “No. Not, Belmonts.” That certainly sounds like a man with no regrets during his twenty-one career attempts in the big Triple Crown race in New York.
Image: Eddie Arcaro on the cover of Time Magazine, 17 May 1948
Arcaro holds the record for the most wins (6) in the Belmont at its current location at the track in Elmont. He’s also the only jockey with two Triple Crowns as a rider (1941 and 1948) — a record likely never to be broken, on par with Joe Dimaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak or UCLA’s seven straight basketball championships
With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at his twenty-one rides and see if we could discern any pattern in how Arcaro rode the Belmont Stakes. I couldn’t track down a source where he spoke specifically about a strategy but he did offer some thoughts on the race in his 1968 interview with Joe Hirsch.
Arcaro made a point to say that where bad racing luck could doom a Kentucky Derby ride, he felt that wasn’t the case in the Belmont. He thought the Belmont was a race where the best colt tended to win and that “…going a mile and a half you have a lot of time to overcome trouble.”
At the time of the interview, the Belmont Stakes had been run at Aqueduct for a stretch due to the renovation at Belmont Park (1963 to 1967). This prompted Hirsch to ask Arcaro the difference between the tracks, Arcaro responded by talking about the advantages of the race at a track that’s a 1 1/2 miles in circumference. He told Hirsch: “…after you go by the stand and go into the first turn it’s like being out in the country at Belmont [Park]. Partly they relax, and I really believe they could get further going a mile and a half over a mile and a half track.” The quiet of the Belmont Park backstretch gave speed horses an advantage according to Arcaro, whereas passing the stands twice at the shorter Aqueduct made it very difficult for a speed horse to relax. When we look at some of his rides, you’ll see that Arcaro won many of his Belmonts on the backstretch.
One last advantage at Belmont, and one in direct contradiction to other things written about the turns at ‘Big Sandy,’ Arcaro claimed that “… the turns being big and wide, it’s very easy to run around two or three horses on the turn and not lose as much ground because it’s a wider, it’s almost a straightaway.” I’m not sure a geometry professor would agree with this assertion but it’s hard to argue with a guy who knew Belmont Park like few other riders.
In paging through the racing charts of the twenty-one editions where Arcaro had a mount, one can find a pattern in his approach that align with some of the things he said to Joe Hirsch in 1968.
In Arcaro’s career, he won the Belmont six times but also finished second three times and third once. His first three mounts — in 1938, 1939, and 1940 — were beaten badly and the charts included the following comments in chronological order: “quit,” “quit,” and “not unduly persevered.” If we toss those three races and use the total starts from his first winner Whirlaway (1941) to his final mount Venetian Way (1960), then Arcaro won six times out of eighteen starts. He also finished second three times in that span. Half of his eighteen Belmont Stakes runners finished first or second from that subset. Of course, he rode some good horses but he beat (and nearly beat) some good ones too. If we just look at Arcaro, without factoring in what he was riding, we do find a pattern in how he rode the final leg of the Triple Crown series.
The quiet backstretch of the 1 1/2 mile oval is where Eddie Arcaro cashed his checks in the Belmont Stakes. Check this out:
- In 14 of the 18 editions he rode from 1941 to 1960, he either passed horses in the backstretch or held the lead as they came out of the first turn into the backstretch.
- In 4 of his 6 wins, he had the lead by the time they hit the mile pole. In the 2 wins where he didn’t have the lead before the final turn, he had the lead by the mile and a quarter pole
- In 2 of his 3 second place finishes, he passed horses on the backstretch. In the other, aboard Jamie K in 1953, he ran behind the pacesetter down the backstretch, held the lead with a quarter mile to go, but was beaten a half length by the legendary Native Dancer who passed him in the stretch.
In the Belmont Stakes, Eddie Arcaro made every effort to get the lead or close ground on the leaders BEFORE they hit the final turn. Arcaro rarely kept his position or made any overt attempt to rate his mount on the backstretch. The one exception being in 1945. When he won aboard Pavot he held his mount under “mild restraint” as the leaders cut fast early fractions of :22 4/5 and :47. He was five lengths back as they hit the final turn, but led by the final quarter pole and won by five lengths.
It seemed he learned a lesson in tactics aboard his first Belmont winner. He followed similar tactics in nearly every ride after. When riding Whirlaway in 1941, he opened up a seven length lead on the backstretch and won by two and a half lengths. The chart documented that he had “speed in reserve” but Arcaro told Joe Hirsch “…if [the Belmont Stakes] had been another sixteenth of a mile, I believe he may have had a heart attack….he was just as dead as a horse could possibly be, but he made it. Whirlaway was not a true mile and a half horse, but he made it.” He made it because Arcaro let him open a big lead on the backstretch where he essentially won the race.
In 1950, with Hill Prince — winner of the Preakness and second place finisher in the Kentucky Derby — he led from the start all the way around to the final quarter pole. He opened up a “good lead on the backstretch” but ended up finishing seventh. Hill Prince won the Withers between the Derby and Preakness and finished third in the Suburban between the Preakness and Belmont — something tells me Arcaro may have been aboard a spent colt. However, with his aggressive ride, he certainly gave him a chance and only lost by four lengths.
Even in the 1959 edition when his mount, Black Hills, tragically broke down near the quarter pole, he advanced from fifth to third on the backstretch. A year later, on his final Belmont Stakes mount, he went from second to first on the backstretch but was beaten by a deep closer Celtic Ash.
As I mentioned before, I couldn’t find a source where Eddie Arcaro spoke directly about his strategy in the Belmont Stakes but the charts speak for themselves. Arcaro died in 1997 so he missed many of the recent failed Triple Crown tries. I would venture to guess that he would have approved of the rides given to Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones, but would have shaken his head in disapproval at the last two attempts with Big Brown and California Chrome. If we use the example of a six time winner of the Belmont Stakes, there is nothing wrong with setting the early fractions or moving early in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
Eddie Arcaro’s Belmont Stakes mounts
Year – Horse – Placing – (Number of entries)
1938 – Gentle Savage – 6th (6)
1939 – Hash – 5th (6)
1940 – Corydon – 6th (6)
1941 – Whirlaway – 1st (4)
1942 – Shut Out – 1st (7)
1945 – Pavot – 1st (8)
1946 – Hampden – 4th (7)
1947 – Khyber Pass – 8th (9)
1948 – Citation – 1st (8)
1949 – Palestinian – 3rd (8)
1950 – Hill Prince – 7th (9)
1951 – Battlefield – 2nd (9)
1952 – One Count – 1st (6)
1953 – Jamie K – 2nd (6)
1954 – Correlation – 5th (13)
1955 – Nashua – 1st (8)
1956 – Jazz Age – 7th (8)
1957 – Bold Ruler – 3rd (6)
1958 – Nasco – 4th (8)
1959 – Black Hills – DNF (9)
1960 – Venetian Way – 2nd (7)
Postscript: Of course, the follow up question is to look at a bigger sample of Belmont Stakes and find similar patterns in approach by successful riders. We prefer the anecdotal here at Colin’s Ghost – which certainly has its limitations – but it’s heckuva lot more fun than a more thorough approach.
NEWS, NOTES, AND SOURCES
Quotes without clear attribution are from the official race charts
The hard to find Eddie Arcaro biography from 1951 — I Ride to Win! — is available online here . It was read in fill for this piece but not cited directly.
You can listen to and read the transcript of the 1968 interview of Eddie Arcaro conducted by Joe Hirsch at the University of Kentucky website .
A comprehensive list of Belmont Stakes winners is available at the NYRA website
Our friend Teresa Genaro did an outstanding commentary for NPR’s Just a Game about balancing her love of animals and love of horse racing. I highly recommend it! You can listen here
Hoping to be back with another article before the big day on Saturday. I will be writing some Belmont Stakes articles for CBS Local that I will send out links for later this week. I think American Pharoah would make a worthy addition to the list of Triple Crown winners. It’s been too long and its going to happen again — don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t finally see another one (my first!) this week
Thanks for reading and good luck!