May 28 2014

Belmont Park – Where All Distances Are Not Created Equal

Belmont Park is The Green Monster of Racetracks, with the largest oval of any thoroughbred racetrack in North America, 11/2 miles in circumference.  That’s 12 furlongs, or put in relative terms, 3 furlongs longer than Saratoga and Aqueduct (the other two racetracks on the NYRA circuit).  It’s 4 furlongs longer than Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Monmouth Park, and other 1-mile tracks.  Again, in relative terms, that 50% longer than those racetracks.  Also, unlike many other racetracks, there are virtually no restrictions in the possible distances that races can be run at Belmont.

Belmont is a visually stunning racetrack to witness in person.  From the stands it seems like the backstretch is miles away.   And, due to the structural design, there are no televisions mounted near the grandstand seats.  For that reason, binoculars are as essential to the racing patron as a copy of the racing program and a cold draft beer.  Fancy hats are optional.

Aside from the sheer grandeur of “beautiful Belmont Park,” as Tom Durkin likes to say, there are implications to this behemoth of a racetrack that horseplayers should be aware of when handicapping races here.  For example, some starting gate positions are not even close to where they are located at other racetracks (for the same distance).  Some distances that represent 2-turn races elsewhere, are 1-turn races at Belmont.  And, for a race that is identical in distance to that of another racetrack, post positions that are at a disadvantage elsewhere might be advantageous at Belmont … or vice versa.

Below is a diagram of the main dirt track (the outer brown ring) at Belmont Park, with starting gate positions for common distances shown in colored boxes.

Belmont Main Track

Due to the size of the oval, a 9-furlong (11/8 mile) race at Belmont Park is only a 1-Turn race.  This is significant for multiple reasons.  The obvious being less demand on the horses having to corner into only one turn, as opposed to two turns at other racetracks.  Also the long straightaway down the backstretch gives horses ample opportunity to get into position without having to worry about hitting the first turn shortly after the start.  Let’s look at a video example from a recent race, the Peter Pan Stakes.  Keep your eye on #4, Tonalist.

See how Tonalist was able to make a decisive move early on, despite not breaking particularly well from the gate. That type of move would be much harder at a track like Gulfstream Park, where the first turn comes up very quickly after the break in a 9-furlong race.  To give you an idea just how quick that first turn comes up at Gulfstream, below is a video replay of the 2014 Florida Derby at the same 9f distance.

Also of interest in watching this video, you can see how the inside post position benefited Wildcat Red (#1), who utilized his early speed to get into position quickly after the break and then position himself at the front of the pack when cornering into the first turn.  Contrary to that, you can see that horses stuck in the outside post positions at Gulfstream Park (in a 9f race) are at a real disadvantage.  They are forced to either hustle out of the gate to gain an early position or fall back before hitting the first turn, else they get caught wide and lose ground early in the race.

Contrast that to Belmont Park, where races run at precisely the same distance have completely different dynamics. Horses in inside post positions can be at a disadvantage, especially if they lack any early speed.  They can find themselves buried on the rail as quicker horses bolt past them, drift over,  and squeeze them back.  In fact, if you watch the Peter Pan Stakes again, notice that Matterhorn (#1) lacks the early speed to get into position, falls to the back of the pack, then is forced to go wide into the stretch in an effort to get around the field of horses that bested him on the backstretch.

This article sponsored by Tom Morley Racing Stable.

This article sponsored by Tom Morley Racing Stable.

The exact same scenario described above also applies to races of 11/16 miles (8.5 furlongs) on the main track at Belmont Park.  At least as it relates to the start of the race, proximity to the first turn, and post position when compared to other tracks.  In addition to that, the stretch and finish for an 8.5 furlong race at Belmont Park is dramatically different than Gulfstream Park.  Let me explain.

Gulfstream Park is a 9-furlong oval.  So, in order to have a race at 8.5 furlongs, and not have the horses start in the middle of the 1st turn, they position the starting gate just ahead of the regular finish line and back up the finish line in order to shorten the race. You can see this on the following diagram of the track, where the “Alternate Finish Line” is shown.

Gulfstream Park Track Diagram

Gulfstream Park Track Diagram

What’s significant about this? Gulfstream Park already has a very short stretch run, only 898 feet from the top of the stretch to the regular finish line. The alternate finish line is before the regular finish line. That makes for an even shorter stretch run in an 8.5 furlong race. Contrast that to Belmont Park, which has a stretch run of 1,097 feet, and is never shortened by an alternate finish line.  You can now see that an 8.5 furlong race run at Belmont Park is much different  from start to finish than a race of equivalent distance at Gulfstream Park.  Just an FYI, Keeneland does the same thing as Gulftream Park utilizing an alternate finish line for 8.5 furlong races on the main track. Click here to read a prior article that compares the many variations in stretch runs amongst major racetracks in North America.

There will be many 8.5f and 9f races during the Belmont Park meet.  Being aware of the uniqueness of Belmont Park can be helpful when evaluating the importance of current post positions, running styles, etc.  Also,when looking at equivalent distances run by a horse at other racetracks – remember, what looks the same on paper could play out much differently in a race run at The Green Monster of Racetracks, where not all distances are created equal.

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By Neal Benoit

3 comments on “Belmont Park – Where All Distances Are Not Created Equal

  1. I rode many years at Belmont Park, once in the Belmont Stakes itself but then in other 1-1/2 mile races held there. I feel that post position does not play as big a factor in a race at Belmont with races that are 8 thru 9 furlongs as it would at a typical one mile track. Mostly because the long run to the turn, horses sort out into position, then when you hit the turn, the turns are so swooping at Belmont, barely feels like you are turning so horses fall into the turns more smoothly and with not such a fight or battle to hold position and save as much ground. But if for some crazy reason things would not get sorted out, it would be horrible to get hung wide the entire turn. The turns are where most traffic problems and trouble occur. At smaller tracks that are average 1 mile ovals with 8-9 furlong races, the distance to the first turn comes up faster, things may not sort out soon enough, tighter turns, more traffic problems and fighting for position. Horses are more likely to become victims of a bad trip or trouble, in my opinion.

    On the downside, I think a track like Belmont can hinder some horses running style where some horses excel with turns, even tight turns where others struggle and falter.

    As a jockey, I loved riding Belmont in those 8-12 furlong races with a horse that was very manageable (push button), a horse you wanted to keep relaxed from a pressured trip and just ride with confidence. Still, in horse racing, anything can happen.

  2. Very interesting and informative post, especially as a fairly new fan of horse racing. People tell me tracks are different but none have been able to explain it well. Your post has been most helpful and clear. Thank you!

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