ELMONT, N.Y. — Raising ticket prices for the Belmont Stakes is one thing, but jacking them up in a non-Triple Crown year could really reduce today's crowd.
A year ago, with Smarty Jones the sixth horse in the last eight years having a shot at a Triple Crown sweep, a reserved clubhouse seat cost $45. Today, with different winners in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the same seat goes for $110. At the end of the day, Affirmed (1978) still will be the last Triple Crown champion.
With Giacomo, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Afleet Alex, the first-place finisher in the Preakness, in the field, track officials are estimating that the crowd might top 70,000 for the 137th Belmont. The day Smarty Jones finished second, a record 120,139 turned out.
Mike Smith is also concerned about crowds. He's the jockey for Giacomo, who finished third in the Preakness as he and Afleet Alex reversed their Derby positions at Pimlico.
"I'm hoping for better luck this time," Smith said. "In the Preakness, we were stuck in idle for a while, because there was nowhere to go. I don't know if anybody could have beaten Afleet Alex, anyhow, that day, but we were frustrated not being able to get clear."
After winning the Derby by half a length -- for only his second victory in nine starts -- Giacomo was beaten by almost 10 lengths in the Preakness. Then John Shirreffs flew the colt home, to Hollywood Park, and worked him twice before deciding to run in the Belmont. Giacomo arrived Wednesday in New York.
Afleet Alex, who has been here a week, is the 6-5 favorite and Giacomo the 4-1 second choice on today's morning line. The forecast is for temperatures in the mid-80s, high humidity and a chance of thunderstorms.
Smith, a Hall of Famer and one of the leading riders in New York before he moved to California four years ago, is five weeks removed from his first Derby win and is winless in nine tries in the Belmont.
"Mike's one of the few riders around who really loves horses, and I like that in a jockey," Shirreffs said. "He doesn't just sit on a horse, like he's on a chair, he becomes a part of the horse. His knowledge of Belmont Park should help."
The Daily Racing Form researched the jockeys in today's 11-horse field and found that Smith, through Wednesday, had ridden in 3,690 races at Belmont, winning 708. Jeremy Rose, who rides Afleet Alex, had ridden only nine races here, with one victory.
"I look at it as a home-court advantage," Smith said. "I haven't ridden here in a while, but I rode here so often for so long that you still remember."
Belmont's racing strip is 1 1/2 miles, the same distance as the race. The horses start at the finish line.
"I love riding here, it's such a great place," said Smith, who won 71 stakes at the three major New York tracks in 1992-93. "But it's a deceiving track, and it can be intimidating. You can't make the mistake of moving too soon with your horse. I've seen it happen time and again, where a premature move will cost a horse a win. It's such a big place. When you first turn down the backside, you can hardly see the next turn."
Giacomo was 18th, and 16 lengths from the lead, before Smith was able to find enough holes to win the Derby. In the early part of the Preakness, Giacomo was 11th, 11 lengths behind.
"I didn't want to be that far back in the Derby, but I got squeezed and I had to take back," Smith said. "That probably cost us four or five lengths. We hope to be much closer this time. I'll have my eye on Afleet Alex, who should be well ahead of us. But it's a mile and a half, and that's uncharted waters for all the horses."
Six hours before the race, the horses are required to be moved from their regular barns to a detention barn. Belmont trainers are reluctantly accepting this new track security policy.
"We'll also have to deal with the heat," said Tim Ritchey, who trains Afleet Alex. "My horse likes to drink a lot of water, anyway, and that helps."
Ritchey and Rose are competing in their first Belmont.
"He's the horse of a lifetime," Ritchey said. "We'll never have another one like him. He's got the heart of a champion, with all the grit and determination he has."
Asked about race strategy, Ritchey said, "It will be a riders' race. Jeremy's used to riding at smaller tracks, less than a mile and a half, and he's got to avoid the instincts he's formed during the few years he's ridden."
Javier Castellano, who's riding the longshot Watchmon in the Belmont, was shaken up in a gate accident before Friday's last race. A track spokeswoman said that Castellano had the wind knocked out of him and wasn't injured.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Post positions for today's 137th running of the $1-million Belmont Stakes. The race is at approximately 3:30 p.m. PDT, Channel 4. Coverage begins at 2:30.
*--* PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds 1. NOLAN'S CAT Dale L. Romans Norberto Arroyo Jr. 50-1 2. PINPOINT Nick Zito John Velazquez 20-1 3. A.P. ARROW Wayne Lukas Jerry Bailey 20-1 4. SOUTHERN AFRICA Michael Puhich Jon Court 12-1 5. GIACOMO John Shirreffs Mike Smith 4-1 6. WATCHMON Patrick Reynolds Javier Castellano 50-1 7. ANDROMEDA'S HERO Nick Zito Rafael Bejarano 15-1 8. REVERBERATE Sal Russo Jose Santos 6-1 9. AFLEET ALEX Tim Ritchey Jeremy Rose 6-5 10. INDY STORM Nick Zito Edgar Prado 20-1 11. CHEKHOV Patrick Biancone Gary Stevens 12-1