“Since Affirmed in 1978” — it has to be the most overused phrase in thoroughbred racing.
And yet it’s inevitable every spring, when a new crop of 3-year-olds takes a shot at the sport’s most cherished prize, the Triple Crown.
Affirmed was the last to do it, 36 years ago, and the ensuing drought has coincided with a long downturn in popularity for racing. The sport’s stakeholders have hungered for a new superstar, and a Triple Crown seems the surest way to make one.
Which is where California Chrome enters the picture.
He’s perfect for the role — a personable chestnut colt with four white hooves, an underdog story and scintillating speed. Five times he has entered the starting gate as a 3-year-old and five times he has blown away the competition, the last two in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
California Chrome will enter the Belmont Stakes on Saturday as a commanding favorite, having already beaten the best challengers in the field. He seems poised to follow in the hoof prints of another great chestnut who ended a long Triple Crown drought, Secretariat
But the sport’s recent past is littered with 3-year-olds who looked like the next superhorse only to falter on the 11/2-mile track at Belmont Park. A dozen horses since 1978 have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, then lost in New York. A few — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones — came agonizingly close. Others, such as Big Brown and War Emblem, seemed spent shortly after leaving the starting gate.
The Triple Crown is a rigged game, one in which the aspirant is asked to find new limits of endurance while facing wave after wave of fresher horses. Some horsemen say it’s become unfair. Others argue it’s supposed to be this hard.
As California Chrome prepares to defy recent history, here are the five greatest obstacles he’ll face:
A FRESH FIELD
Few analysts question that California Chrome is the best 3-year-old in America.
He easily avoided the pitfalls inherent in a 19-horse field in the Kentucky Derby, and he fended off early challenges from speedy contenders in the Preakness.
But the road ahead is far steeper as California Chrome prepares to run for the third time in five weeks against horses who haven’t worked nearly as hard.
His top rivals from Kentucky — Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong — are expected to run in the Belmont on five weeks’ rest. A new challenger, Tonalist, will run on four weeks’ rest after winning the Peter Pan Stakes on May 10 at Belmont Park.
Ride On Curlin, second in the Preakness, is the only other Belmont entrant who will have run the previous two legs of the Triple Crown.
So even if California Chrome is the best horse, he’ll start at a significant disadvantage. Imagine the Miami Heat needing to win an extra round of playoffs before playing in the NBA Finals. That’s the scenario here, and recent history says it makes a difference.
Since 1978, of the 11 near-misses who made it to the starting gate for the Belmont (I’ll Have Another scratched in 2012), seven lost to challengers who had not run in the Preakness. It’s an accelerating trend; the last five horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown lost the Belmont to horses who hadn’t run in Baltimore.
California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, wasn’t shy about calling for change after his horse won at Pimlico. Coburn said he’d like to see the Preakness and Belmont fields limited to horses who had run the previous legs of the Triple Crown.
“If you bow out in the Preakness, you don’t come back for the Belmont,” he said. “I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime, because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart.”
THE FATIGUE FACTOR
California Chrome has never run three times in five weeks. It’s a work rate unfamiliar to most modern thoroughbreds. Trainer Art Sherman will tell you he prefers to rest his horses six or seven weeks between starts.
It’s common to hear old-school analysts complain about the lack of stamina in modern thoroughbreds. Today’s horses are bred to run shorter distances and often worked lightly before Triple Crown season. So come Belmont time, they’re unprepared for the rigor, or so the argument goes.
Take Big Brown, who was perceived as even more dominant than California Chrome after he swept through the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2008. He had run just three times before the Derby, and after battling a cracked hoof leading up to the Belmont, he pulled up mid-race, leaving his quest unfinished. Big Brown came back to win twice later in the year, confirming his talent. He simply could not handle the Triple Crown schedule.
The next near-miss, I’ll Have Another, never even started in the Belmont because of a sore tendon. He had raced just five times entering the Triple Crown.
“I think horses years ago were tougher, and they campaigned harder,” said Affirmed co-owner Patrice Wolfson. “They usually relished racing.”
Is there reason to think California Chrome will be different? Perhaps so. With 12 races on his resume, five this year, his schedule is akin to those of the great 1970s champions. The Belmont was Secretariat’s 12th race, for example. It was the ninth for 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
For all of Sherman’s reservations about the schedule, his horse is well tested.
If the Kentucky Derby is marked by packed fields and the Preakness by early speed, the Belmont is the marathon of the Triple Crown slate.
Like most of his peers, California Chrome has never run longer than the 11/4 miles at Churchill Downs. The 11/2-mile Belmont represents an unexplored frontier.
Sherman has been bullish about his colt’s ability to handle the distance. The trainer likes to say California Chrome would run all day if permitted. By all accounts he had energy to spare at the end of both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
On the other hand, jockey Victor Espinoza had to run him hard down the stretch at Pimlico to hold off Ride On Curlin. And Commanding Curve was closing fast at the end of the Derby. If either race had been 11/2miles, would California Chrome have been passed?
It’s a question he might have to answer at Belmont Park, with strong closers such as Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong in the field. The closest near-misses since 1978 — Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones — all led in the Belmont and lost to late charges.
Espinoza feels an unusual affinity for California Chrome, who has responded to his calls for speed at various points in big races. This versatility might be the colt’s greatest strength.
But Espinoza acknowledged that the Preakness presented a difficult tactical challenge, with speedy horses attacking California Chrome in the first half of the race. Given the 13/16-mile distance, Espinoza had to decide whether to accelerate earlier than he wanted or risk letting a speed horse run away with the race. He asked for California Chrome’s big move with more than a half-mile to go, and the colt had enough endurance to pull it off.
But what if the same thing happens in the Belmont and California Chrome accelerates early only to face a much longer stretch run?
Many felt Stewart Elliott fell into that trap aboard Smarty Jones in 2004 and lost his lead to 36-1 underdog Birdstone because of it.
Patience is often key to a strong run in the Belmont.
Any trainer will tell you that anything can happen in horse racing. So many variables have to align for one victory, much less three in five weeks against the nation’s best competition.
Already, California Chrome has evaded the threat of a poor post position at Churchill Downs and overcome the irritation of a sore throat at Pimlico. While rivals have been scratched because of injuries or become trapped in impenetrable race traffic, he has seemingly made his own luck.
But Sherman knows that some factors are out of his or the horse’s control.
California Chrome could develop a minor injury, as I’ll Have Another did in 2012 or Big Brown did in 2008. He could draw a far inside post position and become trapped against the rail with other horses kicking dirt in his face.
These are problems he has not yet confronted, and if we’ve learned anything about the Triple Crown, it’s that the problems keep coming.
That’s as it should be, traditionalists say.
“I think it takes not only an exceptional horse to win all three races, but it takes great training and management, and it takes good luck,” said Dr. Jim Hill, co-owner of Seattle Slew. “I think all those things should go together, and I don’t think that the task should be lessened at all.”