ELMONT, N.Y. -- Early yesterday morning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin went out to inspect Belmont Park's 1 1/2 -mile racecourse. When he came back to his stable, where Jazil was getting new shoes, McLaughlin couldn't hide his delight.
"The track is fast," he said. "Perfect for a deep closer."
Just how perfect became apparent 2 minutes, 27.86 seconds after the starting bell in the 138th Belmont Stakes, as Jazil breezed home to a 1 1/4 -length victory over Bluegrass Cat. Sunriver finished third, an additional 2 1/4 lengths back.
The win was the first classic victory for McLaughlin and Jazil's owner, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, whose brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum won the Preakness on May 20 for his first Triple Crown victory. It was also the first classic win for jockey Fernando Jara, 18, who had won his only other stakes race four months ago.
Jara, a native of Panama, is the youngest jockey to win the Belmont since Steve Cauthen did it as a 17 year old in 1978, riding Affirmed. He is also the youngest to win a Triple Crown race since Cowboy Jack Kaenel won on Baltimorean Nathan Scherr's Aloma's Ruler in 1982 at age 16.
"I feel great," Jara said after the race. "You have no idea how I feel right now. When I'm a little kid and I saw [this race], I say, one day I gonna be there. Now I win the race. I see all the big jockeys and I say, one day I want to be there and I'm here. You don't know how I feel right now."
For a race that was supposed to be without excitement, there was still plenty of cheering going on by the Belmont crowd of 61,168.
With Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro recovering from career-ending injuries in a Pennsylvania animal hospital, and Preakness winner Bernardini's trainer Tom Albertrani choosing to keep his horse at home, the betting crowd had a lot of choices to make and difficulty deciding on a favorite.
It wasn't until just before race time that Bob and John emerged as the slight favorite (4.7-to-1) over Bluegrass Cat ( 4.9-to-1). And it was Bob and John who took the early lead, as trainer Bob Baffert said he "hoped to steal" the race.
"I thought it was my best chance," Baffert said. "I didn't think anyone would want the lead, but that didn't work out. No one was going to let me do that. ... The best horse won today. Jazil showed he can run with these horses. This was his Grade I race."
Jazil, who went off at 6.2-to-1, paid $14.40, $6.70 and $4.70.
While the end result might seem easily predictable after the fact, Jara's appearance told a different story.
Heading for the winner's circle, Jara and the brown 3-year-old sired by Seeking the Gold, were covered with dirt. As Jara raised his goggles, the outline of his trip was spread across his dirt-laden face. His silks were more brown than royal blue and white.
Jara and Jazil, who did not run in the Preakness and finished in a tie for fourth with Brother Derek at the Derby, won by rallying from last to first and more than proved their ability, recovering from a bad start that might have thrown one or both of them off their game.
Jazil stumbled as he left the starting gate, a misstep he might have been better able to handle than most, given his description as a "deep closer" who likes to come from way off the pace. The only problem with that in the Belmont Stakes is that history has said deep closers can't win, because over 1 1/2 miles horses are going to be leery of a fast pace, which is usually necessary for closers to do their best work. And Jazil's owner, Sheikh Hamdan had given direct orders to have his horse closer to the front than had been the case in the Kentucky Derby.
And Jara, a teenager with only this year's Kentucky Derby on his resume in the classic Triple Crown races, hasn't seen everything yet. But when his horse stumbled, causing him to lose one of his stirrups, he, too, quickly recovered.
"When he broke, he swayed a little bit and I curve my feet with the door," he said. "I can't put [his foot] back right away in the irons, but I did quickly find my stirrup and closed pretty fast. I know I had to get him up there and try to put him more [toward the front] and I tried to do that and we were in the clear the whole way."
The two rallied from more than five lengths behind the field at the start to be leading at the five-sixteenths pole. Bluegrass Cat challenged on the turn for home, but Jazil won that duel entering the stretch and no one else closed.
"It looked like my horse was moving easily when he came next to Bluegrass Cat," McLaughlin said. "It didn't look like anyone else was gaining quickly. I was happy to be there. That's what everybody talks about, deep closers can't win. So we had to be there with three-eighths left to go."
McLaughlin said he got about eight calls from veteran jockeys before the Kentucky Derby asking whether he wanted to change his jockey. But McLaughlin and Rick Nichols, the vice president of Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Stable, said they never thought about taking their young jockey off Jazil after a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial.
"I was an agent for a year and a half for Chris Antley," McLaughlin said. "I watched a lot of riders. I think Fernando has raw natural ability that just fits a horse very well. He's confident and he's cool. He's done everything right and I like the way he fits the horse and the way the horse responds to him."
Yesterday, Jazil, Jara and McLaughlin were the perfect team. And though McLaughlin said it seemed, "a long way to the wire" after Jazil took the lead at the top of the stretch, it was also the most thrilling afternoon of his life.
"I grew up in Lexington," he said. "I'm living my dream training horses every day, but to be involved in the Triple Crown is what we all dream about. It's why we get up at 4 in the morning every day to try and accomplish this. It's great to win our first time in a 1 1/2 -mile Belmont."
Jazil hit the side of the gate at the start, the rider quickly regained his iron and angled to the inside, saved ground on the first turn, began to move out midway down the backstretch, split horses to launch his rally on the far turn, swung six wide to challenge on the turn, surged to the front leaving the five-sixteenths pole, battled outside Bluegrass Cat entering the stretch, opened a clear advantage leaving the furlong marker then edged away under strong left hand urging.
Bluegrass Cat was strung out five wide while contesting the pace on the first turn, stalked the leaders while continuing very wide along the backstretch, launched his bid on the far turn, drew on even terms with the leaders while six wide on the turn, fought gamely inside the winner into upper stretch, dug in gamely in midstretch then continued on well to clearly best the others.
Sunriver was taken in hand early, was caught wide along the backstretch, moved between the horses on the far turn, swung seven wide while gaining a bit nearing the quarter pole, raced just outside the winner into upper stretch and finished willingly to gain a share.
Steppenwolfer raced well back for six furlongs, checked in traffic on the far turn, raced behind a wall of horses approaching the quarter pole, followed the winner while gaining at the top of the stretch and rallied mildly through the final eighth.
Oh So Awesome lunged in the air after hesitating at the start, was outrun for a mile, angled out leaving the backstretch, swung wide at the three-sixteenths pole, gained a bit to reach contention entering the stretch then flattened out late.
Hemingway's Key was unhurried, saved ground while racing far back for most of the trip then passed only tiring horses.
Platinum Couple was rated along the inside, lodged a mild bid slightly off the rail on the far turn then lacked further response.
Bob and John rushed up to gain the early advantage, set the pace while well off the rail for six furlongs, relinquished the lead midway on the turn and steadily tired thereafter.
Sacred Light caught wide on the first turn, continued seven wide throughout and failed to mount a serious rally when asked for run on the turn.
High Finance moved up inside, slipped through along the rail to contest the pace along the backstretch, pressed the issue inside Bob and John for a mile then gave way on the turn.
Deputy Glitters moved up quickly from outside in the early stages, pressed the pace six wide to the far turn then gave way abruptly on the turn.
Double Galore raced up close between horses while five wide along the backstretch, raced in good position in hand to the far turn and steadily tired thereafter then was eased through the final furlong.