It’s the Belmont Stakes or bust for California Chrome. The chestnut colt from humble beginnings has just 1 1/2 miles of track in Elmont, New York, separating him from becoming the first horse to win all three legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
The Belmont Stakes is the third jewel in the Triple Crown. It is where all the hopes and dreams of previous Triple Crown challengers have come to pass, and it is where California Chrome must run his best race in order to make history.
For a brief moment, it appeared California Chrome might not even take to the track at Belmont Park due to a quibble over the nasal strip he’s worn during his six consecutive victories.
Trainer Art Sherman raised doubts about California Chrome's participation due to this issue, as per The Courier-Journal's Jennie Rees.
Those fears were put to rest on Monday, as the three stewards at Belmont Park agreed to allow the use of nasal strips in competition, as per Joe Drape of The New York Times.
With that minor hiccup out of the way—speaking of hiccups, California Chrome’s throat blister appeared to be another non-issue at Pimlico—all the analysis is centered around the unique challenges of the Belmont Stakes and the type of race that California Chrome needs to run in order to win it.
California Chrome’s victories in the Derby and the Preakness followed a similar pattern. Jockey Victor Espinoza kept California Chrome near the top of the group, but at a measured pace that kept him from getting out in front too early. California Chrome then started to launch into a full gallop with the last quarter of the race to go.
Both times, the strategy worked to perfection as California Chrome opened up big leads on the home stretch.
However, both races saw California Chrome cruising as another horse made a late push and closed down the gap before running out of track. In the Derby, it was Commanding Curve. At Belmont, it was Ride On Curlin closing in at the end.
Those last-gasp challengers aside, California Chrome clearly dominated the remainder of the field. Danza wasn’t much of a threat with a third-place finish at the Derby, and Social Inclusion was behind by eight lengths when he crossed the finish line third at the Preakness.
So despite the narrowing of first and second place in both races, California Chrome certainly appears to crush the rest of the competition.
This does depend on your definition of true competition, as the 10-horse field was bereft of thoroughbreds who had run in the Derby. Only Ride On Curlin and General a Rod chased California Chrome from Louisville to Baltimore.
In New York, the competition will be fierce, and the 1 1/2-mile race is a daunting challenge as the longest race of the Triple Crown series. Fatigue will certainly be an issue for California Chrome, and the driving force for concern is whether or not the chestnut colt can hold off those late challengers over the extra furlongs.
California Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman, isn’t worried about the length of the race, as per Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman (subscription required).
I think the mile and a half will be no problem. He gallops two miles at Los Alamitos every morning, and the second time around he’s stronger than the first time around. To last that long in a race that far takes a horse who can rate, and he’s an easy horse to rate.
The length may not be an issue, but the field will be much stronger than it was in the Preakness. Privman notes in that same column how horses rested from skipping out on the Preakness have derailed Triple Crown bids in the past:
Commanding Curve (second in the Derby), Danza (third), Intense Holiday (12th), Samraat (fifth), and Wicked Strong (fourth) ran in the Derby on May 3 but skipped the Preakness to point for the Belmont, a strategy that derailed recent Triple Crown bids by Funny Cide, who lost to Empire Maker, and Smarty Jones, who lost to Birdstone.
The stronger field combined with some questions about California Chrome’s times point to a possible upset. California Chrome’s 2:03.66 Derby time was the slowest for a winner since Cannonade won with a 2:04 in 1974.
NBC Sports’ Randy Moss relayed some statistics that show California Chrome wasn’t technically the fastest horse at Churchill Downs despite being the winner.
However, his 1:54.84 time in the Preakness wasn’t far off Affirmed’s 1:54.40 winning time at Pimlico in 1978. There are also plenty of factors such as track conditions, general health and the size of the field that all affect these winning times. Still, they are part of the overall picture that explains how California Chrome has been running his races so far.
It is going to take a perfect race from California Chrome and Espinoza to win the Belmont Stakes. The combination of new shooters and returning Derby foes should provide the favorite with his biggest test yet. It is fitting, of course, that this takes place in the final race.
California Chrome's outstanding acceleration heading into the final stretch should propel him to the front, but there should be a challenger in this field with enough stamina to keep up with the horse and overtake him just before the finish line.
Look for well-rested horses like Commanding Curve—who appeared to have plenty left in the tank at the Derby—or Wicked Strong to upset California Chrome's bid at history, as much as America might dread this devastating outcome.
Prediction: Second Place