California Chrome is not going to capture horse racing’s Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont Stakes. It would be a nice story if it did happen, and I sincerely hope to write it on Saturday evening, but that’s not the way to bet.
The Belmont is a heartbreaker, and for the 12 previous horses in the last 36 years that won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, it is a streak breaker, too. That’s because of the 11/2-mile distance, the farthest any of them will ever have to race; and because of the grind of training for and competing in three distance races in the span of five weeks; and because horses have to be good, but they also have to be lucky to win three straight times against a credible field. Three times lucky is a lot anywhere.
In horse racing, where one of the recent Triple Crown hopefuls was waylaid because he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, three times lucky is a trifecta against incalculable odds.
Chrome is easily the best 3-year-old in the country. That title has already been assured. The chestnut colt has great tactical speed and a willingness to race for distance that belies his bloodlines. In winning six straight races, a streak that dates back to December, California Chrome has been the bettors’ choice five times and had every other horse in those fields — 49 horses in the five races — angling for a way to knock off the favorite.
In the Belmont, not only will Chrome be the favorite, he will be odds-on, meaning a win would return less than even money to the bettor. The morning line set Chrome at 3-5 after Wednesday’s post-position draw, but the massive crowd hoping to rubberneck history on Saturday will take the line down further than that. Not that it matters to the outcome how much of a sure thing the colt appears. Since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, seven horses were odds-on favorites to equal the feat and none of them did. I’ll Have Another in 2012 would likely have been the eighth, but he was scratched because of injury.
How could it be that all those prohibitive favorites failed to come through? It is the nature of the Belmont, and of the 11/2-mile main track at Belmont Park, the longest thoroughbred dirt course in the United States. The turns are impossibly long and sweeping, the backstretch and the homestretch interminable. It is just different, and it can throw off the horses as well as their jockeys. Running out of gas in the Belmont, even for a favorite — maybe “especially for a favorite — is as common as flies in the barn. In the last 30 years, only five race favorites have won the Belmont, none since Afleet Alex in 2005.
Fresh horses win the Belmont, and regardless of how well a Derby and Preakness winner might run, it isn’t a fresh horse. Going up against California Chrome, which will have had 21 days since the Preakness, is a group that has had far more rest. Only Ride On Curlin, the Preakness runner-up, and General a Rod have stayed on Chrome’s schedule.
Among the other challengers is Commanding Curve, who closed late to finish second in the Derby and will have had 35 days between races. The same goes for Wicked Strong, another closer who was fourth in the Derby. Two other colts, Medal Count and Samraat, also have been biding their time since the Derby, and two decent entrants, Commissioner and Tonalist, last raced four weeks ago.
What California Chrome does have going for it is a dearth of speed in the race. Social Inclusion, a very capable pacesetting horse, wasn’t entered because he has been fractious in the starting gate and the Belmont’s will be mere yards from 100,000 screaming fans. There doesn’t seem to be a rival who will push Chrome into accepting a pace that might be too torrid in the first mile of the race.
Some horse will run at Chrome, though, even just as a tactical measure. Then it will be up to jockey Victor Espinoza to decide whether to get on the lead or stay back and stalk the lead. If he takes Chrome out too quickly, he runs the risk of burning out his mount. If too slowly, there is the risk of allowing one of several plodding closers in the field to stay close and then build a head of steam in the long homestretch.
Espinoza knows the track and he knows the race. He has been in this position before, hoping to ride War Emblem to the Triple Crown in 2002. War Emblem stumbled from the gate, bumped another horse, still got up to stalk the pace in perfect position after a mile, then had nothing left. Espinoza and War Emblem faded to eighth place, 20 lengths behind a 70-to-1 shot named Sarava.
Bad luck? Sure. But it happens. So far this season, California Chrome has had nothing but good luck. Every break from the gate has been uneventful. Every trip has been smooth. Every scenario has played out just right. The horse had a lot to do with that, of course, but not everything.
It would be fine to be wrong, but the streak of good racing and good fortune ends here.