How Rich Strike might overcome slower pace in Belmont Stakes

How Rich Strike might overcome slower pace in Belmont Stakes

Elmont,
N.Y.

The
big thunderstorm that hit Belmont Park about a half-hour after sunrise Thursday
disrupted training for the horses being prepared for Belmont Stakes 2022. It was
about the only thing that did not go exactly to plan – or to fate – in the last
month for Rich Strike.

“We
were going to go out at 8:30 anyway,” trainer Eric Reed said at about 8 a.m.
EDT. “They’re doing a break on the track right now, so when we go out, it’ll be
about as good as we can get it.”

Eventually,
the clouds parted, and the sun came out on a steamy, late-spring day. By then
the unlikeliest Kentucky Derby winner in more than a century took his turn
around the big main track.

“Went
perfect,” Reed said after a gallop and gate schooling. A first trip to the
paddock was expected before the first race Thursday at 3:05 p.m. EDT.

RELATED: Can Belmont favorite win from front end?

Not
that Reed was too fussed about the conditions. After days of hearing about a
likelihood of rain Saturday, horsemen preparing for this weekend’s 1 1/2-mile
classic were hearing some hedging from government forecasters. There remains a
60 percent chance of between a tenth and a quarter of an inch of showers,
according to the National Weather Service.

The
bigger problem for Rich Strike in his bid to score a second upset in a Triple Crown
race is not the weather but the lack of early pace this weekend.
There will not be a 21.78-second opening quarter-mile the way there was when
Summer Is Tomorrow led the Derby parade.

“We’re
not going to get a pace in this race like that,” Reed said. “I’m not going to
give my preferred pace, because I don’t want to tip what I want. It’s really going
to be up to how he wants to run into the first turn. If he decides to be a
little more aggressive than normal, we’ll be in real good shape.”

That
might be a problem for jockey Sonny León. In the five races he has had the ride,
Rich Strike has not been closer than 5 1/2 lengths at the first call. He lost
the first four by an average of 6 1/2 lengths. Only when the first half-mile
was run in less than 47 seconds did an 80-1 miracle happen.

We
the People, the morning-line favorite, is expected to establish the pace Saturday.
When he won the one-turn, 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan (G3) by 10 1/4 lengths at
Belmont Park last month, the colt trained by Rodolphe Brisset went out in
23.66, 47.24 and 1:11.25.

Reed
said that if Rich Strike repeats his own pace from Churchill Downs, he would be much closer to We the People than many horseplayers might expect.

“His
time in the Derby, I believe, was 23 and change and 47 and change,” Reed said.
Indeed, Trakus said Rich Strike’s early fractions were 23.08 and 47.32 seconds.
“That’s going to put him where we’d want him here, if he does that.”

Owner
Rick Dawson was confident his horse would be consistent in maintaining a
24-second pace for each quarter-mile.

“I
think our guy is capable of running 24s all day,” Dawson said. “If he can run
a similar race, maybe that first quarter will be quicker for positioning into that
first turn. Studying Belmont races in the past, they’ll back off to 24 1/2 or
25 sometimes. Naturally, he’ll move up a little if he maintains his pace.”

Then
again, that might force the Keen Ice colt to do something he has been reluctant
to do with León. Other than the deep stretch in the Derby, Rich Strike has not
been better than third place at any call since he broke his maiden by 17
lengths. That was in the Sept. 17 race from which Reed claimed him on behalf of
Dawson for $30,000.

“He
might be one that kind of follows the herd,” Reed said. “I just need him to be
more aggressive himself out of the gate. That puts us in a spot we need to be
in. He can’t be 10 lengths behind the field. If he is, he’s cut out a whole lot
of work to do.”

The
wild card in all this is León, who never has ridden a race at Belmont Park. He has
two rides scheduled before he gets on Rich Strike. He will be in an early turf
race Friday and in the one-turn, six-furlong opener on the main track Saturday.

Reed
said he was not worried about relying on a rookie Belmont rider.

“I
don’t have a problem,” he said. “We’re not a pacesetter, so it’s not like he’s
got to worry about not moving soon and not knowing what pole he’s at. He’s just
got to be able to have the horse hopefully within four or five lengths by the
middle of the turn. If he can do that turning for home, then it’s who hits the
wire the best. But if he’s at least 10 or 15 lengths behind going into the
turn, it’s Katie bar the door.”

If
anything has encouraged Reed this week, it has been how Rich Strike has taken
to the trademark loam that gave Belmont Park its nickname of Big Sandy. Even
with its wide, sweeping turns of a quarter-mile each, he said the colt has been
able to change leads efficiently.

“He
does it easier here,” he said. “I’ve watched him in his gallops, and he’s out
in the middle of the turn when he comes out. The closer to the rail you get
him, the harder he wants to go. He swaps his leads real easy. I don’t think he’s
had any problems with that whatsoever.”

Rain
or shine, then, Rich Strike has been pronounced to be as good as he can be in
preparation for the Test of the Champion. Or, in this case, the test of the maiden
winner who stunned the racing world by stealing America’s biggest race.

“Whenever
an 80-1 wins any race, often times it’s got to be ‘because of’ vs. just the
horse,” Dawson said. “You hear, ‘It can’t be just the horse, or we wouldn’t have
had him at 80-1. We’re smarter than that.’ ”

Of
course Dawson heard the declarations that Rich Strike was a fluke. But he made
the point that his horse was not alone in benefitting from the hot early pace.

“My
thought would be if these favorite horses had been up on that pace and burned
out, that would have been very plausible,” he said. “However, they laid back
off that pace as well. They were running hard down that stretch. They were
going to run really nice times and a good race. We just got the best of them on
that day.”

Still,
in the 91 previous times the Belmont has been run over the same 1 1/2 miles
that will be used Saturday, only five winners came from more than two lengths
behind in the stretch. For his part, Dawson is not concerning himself
with that history lesson, even as Rich Strike could be rewriting it.

“I
don’t dwell on those kind of things,” he said. “I’ve just tried to keep it all
in perspective. The excitement of being in the Belmont for my first time, there’s going
to be a lot of nervous energy I’m sure as we get nearer that post time.”

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