"While some New Yorkers become morose with rain," Gay Talese penned in his 1961 column New York is a City of Things Unnoticed, "others prefer it, like to walk in it, and say that on rainy days the city's buildings seem somehow cleaner—washed in an opalescence, like a Monet painting."
Whether Belmont Park will seem more picturesque in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Andrea's pass near Long Island remains to be seen. But on June 7, the day before the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), horsemen were primarily trying to make the best of things as a steady downpour dampened conditions—if not spirits—around the New York oval.
Steady rain throughout the day stopped only once, for a remarkable run by Calidoscopio in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II), and continued with frequent periods of intense downpour. The track was a soupy mess by the end of a 10-race card, the infield ponds brimming at their banks, as the maintenance crews of the New York Racing Association went to work against the elements.
Of 144 previous editions of the Belmont, 37 have been run on off tracks. Previous winners in the slop include Empire Maker (2003) and Conquistador Cielo (1982). The most recent was 2011, when Ruler On Ice won on a sloppy sealed track.
"He broke his maiden on an off track, so we were hoping he'd run well," trainer Kelly Breen remembered of the 24-1 upset winner. "It took me almost three hours to get from New Jersey into Belmont, and I didn't get there until probably close to 4 p.m. due to the weather, so I didn't have much to go on other than watching races on the iPad in the car. The track condition did move him up; that's why they call them mudders."
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle five starters in the Belmont, said an off track should not particularly impact the performance of his horses—although in general, mud can make or ruin a runner's race.
"You will have horses that will dramatically improve on an off track, and you will have horses that will dislike it and run much worse than they normally do," Pletcher said. "It's certainly a variable that's more unpredictable and could possibly aid a longshot."
Pletcher does not think surface played into the Derby results for his runners who are coming back in the Belmont. Overanalyze finished 11th after an erratic trip, Palace Malice burned himself out to 12th by setting a quick pace for the first time in his life, and Revolutionary finished well to get third. In general, however, the trainer said it is frustrating as a trainer to have a horse come back from a race on an off track with only the surface to blame.
"You hate for the racetrack to determine the outcome of the race, but that's part of the deal," Pletcher said.
Sloppy surfaces differ from racetrack to racetrack, and sometimes even differ at the same track from race to race.
"It's going to depend on when the rain stops and what kind of day we've got," Pletcher said. "If the sun peeks out and we get a little wind, it could dry out pretty quickly and be wet-fast by the time they run the Belmont. If we get kind of an overcast day without much wind, it might be heavy. I think that's the thing we would not like—a deep, heavy drying-out racetrack. But we'll just have to see what happens."
Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Orb took that race over a sloppy sealed track, although the rain was not as intense at Churchill Downs as it has been at Belmont leading into the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Although the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) surface was officially deemed fast for winner Oxbow , it had been dampened from rain earlier in the day. Derby runner-up Golden Soul and third-place finisher Revolutionary also handled the slop at Churchill, and May 11 Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) winner Freedom Child relished it at Belmont with a 13 1/4-length victory.
Trainer Dallas Stewart said you never know exactly how a horse will handle an off track until the runner tries, but that Golden Soul's dam—the Mr. Prospector mare Hollywood Gold—gave an indication he wouldn't mind.
"Any time you see Mr. Prospector, that's a great thing," Stewart said of the leading off-track influencer.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will pilot Overanalyze for Pletcher in the Belmont Stakes. He said in 23 years of riding over the big New York oval, he's never seen the track become particularly unsafe due to track conditions.
"These people do a really, really good job on the racetrack, and this track is not known to get dangerous at all," Velazquez said. "It would have to be a really, really strong storm to make the track wash out or something like that. This track, I've been here 23 years, it's never washed out. Saratoga, from the way it's bent and everything, it'll wash out. This one, all the years I've been riding here, I've never had a problem with this racetrack. This is a track that holds a lot of water and it's pretty safe."
Velazquez said the Belmont surface tends, like most tracks worked by maintenance crews, to change from race to race. But he won't handicap the big race with the surface in mind, because how he reacts to that part of the scenario will be simple. His horse will either like the track or he won't.
"I can't change it at all," Velazquez said of his game plan. "I'm going to do my homework based on the way I see the competition; I'm going to concentrate more on that and obviously, hopefully, my horse likes the track."