California Chrome may have finished first in the 2014 Preakness Stakes, but the real winner here is the Belmont Stakes.
The Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness favorite winning at Pimlico Race Course meant one undeniably meaningful thing—the chances of horse racing's first Triple Crown in 36 years will come down to one race, on June 7 in New York. If California Chrome wins there, he will become the first winner of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
Instead of Belmont being somewhat of an afterthought at the end of a Triple Crown slate, it will decide one of the biggest moments in sports history over the last few decades.
With three weeks separating Pimlico and Belmont, the sports world will have plenty of time to analyze California Chrome's previous six appearances—all of which he won.
But none will be more dissected and prodded than his run Saturday in the Preakness.
Early on in his run at Pimlico, the Derby winner seemed to be in a great position. He stayed right with the pace of the top horses, and when it came time to enter the stretch, it was no surprise to see California Chrome sprinting toward a resounding victory.
But unlike his run at Churchill Downs or his four wins previously, California Chrome wasn't able to stroll to a victory in the final furlong. Early contenders Ria Antonia and Pablo Del Monte were fading, but pre-race contenders Ride on Curlin and Social Inclusion were suddenly making a convincing move.
|2014 Preakness Stakes Results|
|2||10||Ride On Curlin||1 1/2|
|4||2||General a Rod||8|
|5||4||Ring Weekend||12 1/4|
|6||9||Pablo Del Monte||14|
|7||1||Dynamic Impact||15 3/4|
|8||7||Kid Cruz||15 3/4|
|10||6||Ria Antonia||30 3/4|
Ride on Curlin closed the gap incredibly fast in the final few lengths, not allowing California Chrome to slow down and forcing him to do what he didn't have to do at the Derby—finish strong.
Heading into the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome is expected to see many familiar faces from either the Derby or the Preakness—or both. Danonymous Racing tweeted a picture of the provisional Belmont lineup:
Looking down that list shouldn't give California Chrome's supporters much of a worry. After all, he has disposed of all but two of them in his first two Triple Crown appearances.
ESPN's RJ Bell reported an early betting line for his Triple Crown hopes:
California Chrome's chances of winning won't depend on his competition but rather the horse's ability to stay rested for the daunting 1 1/2-mile length and avoid an unfortunate scratch.
The greatest difficulties in pulling off the Triple Crown are the short turnarounds. With just two weeks in between the Derby and the Preakness, and three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, trainers, jockeys and especially horses can be thrown off.
Then, of course, there's the considerable step up in length.
While the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles and and the Preakness features a 1 3/16-mile race, the Belmont is a whopping 1 1/2 miles—or 12 furlongs to the Preakness' 9.5. It's the marathon of horse racing, with endurance and late stamina proving to be key.
The nervousness in trainer Art Sherman's post-race quotes almost jumped off the page, per Daily Racing Form Derby:
Later, though, he came off a bit more confident in talking about his Triple Crown hopes, per Preakness.com:
I really think a mile and a half is no problem at all for this horse. I know when I was at Los Alamitos he galloped two miles every day and the second time around there he was in another gear. He looked better to me the second time around than the first.
California Chrome may have a tough time with the step up in distance, especially considering he faded quickly in the Derby's final furlong. But with his strong finish at Pimlico, many of those doubts could start to be quelled.
Predicting the Belmont is so tough simply because no horse at this point has any sort of experience running at 1 1/2 miles. But considering the wide gap in talent California Chrome has shown over his fellow contenders, it would be awfully hard to make a compelling case for anyone else to beat him.
Winning the Triple Crown is one of the biggest feats in sports and the feat of all feats in horse racing, and that's not without good reason. Eleven horses have failed to win the Belmont after coming out victorious in the opening two legs, and many horses of California Chrome's caliber were in that mix.
But it's been a while since horse racing has seen a horse as dominant as California Chrome has proven to be, and putting money on any other horse to win the Belmont Stakes wouldn't be money well spent.