2014 Belmont Stakes: Early Storylines to Follow for Triple Crown's Final Leg
"Nasalgate" is in the rear-view mirror, and the world of horse racing can pitch its eyes on what's truly important: the Belmont Stakes and an overdue Triple Crown.
The year was 2012 and I'll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He was denied the use of the nasal strips that he wore during his run through the Triple Crown, but it was a moot point since he scratched with a tendon injury before the Belmont Stakes. Two years later, California Chrome has a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner—if he can stay sound. And there's no reason to think he won't.
Chrome's attempt at the Triple Crown is the most important storyline unfolding, but there are others, too. The Belmont Stakes represents Act 3 in a narrative spanning five weeks (more if you include the Derby prep season).
It all comes to a head on June 7 as all roads lead to Belmont Park. Read on to see what else is brewing besides Chrome's run through history.
5. Can Todd Pletcher Be His Generation's Woody Stephens?
Todd Pletcher loves the Derby and loves the Belmont. The Preakness, eh, not so much. He's of the mindset to run in the Derby with as many horses as he can, skip the Preakness and see who's left standing for a run at the Belmont Stakes. It's a recipe that has won him two Belmont Stakes.
He won his first in 2007 when the filly Rags to Riches held off a fast-charging Curlin. Rags to Riches had won the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and then wheeled back five weeks later to win the Belmont.
Palace Malice won the Belmont for Pletcher in 2013. He set the pace in the Derby while wearing blinkers, then Pletcher took off the blinkers and the horse relaxed and impressively won the Belmont.
The Hall of Famer Woody Stephens won five Belmont Stakes in a row from 1982 to 1986. While Pletcher probably won't win five in a row, having won two puts him in that category of now-he-can-do-something-special. For as many shots as he takes at the Derby, his real talent may end up being Belmont wins.
He has two horses (he had three, but Danza was withdrawn) in here (Intense Holiday and Commissioner), and they have to be respected on talent but also because of the Toddster.
4. How About Them Preakness Skippers?
Maybe a good name for the horses that skip the Preakness is "Weakness" horses. The second through fifth horses in the Derby all skipped the Preakness and committed to the Belmont. They include: Commanding Curve, Danza (now withdrawn), Wicked Strong and Samraat.
It's confounding that most trainers feel it's best to run 12 furlongs on five weeks' rest instead of 9.5 furlongs on two weeks' rest, but whatever boils your potato.
Commanding Curve closed with a wicked kick to finish second to Chrome in the Derby. Wicked Strong and Samraat hooked up to battle for fourth and fifth, respectively. They all skipped the Preakness with eyes on the longest race they'll ever run.
They pose formidable threats. All of them have—maybe with the exception of Samraat (though he does have a win at Belmont)—distance pedigrees. What Samraat lacks in bloodline, he makes up for in pure heart. Not many thought he'd get the distance in the Derby, and he was right there at the top of the stretch and ran hard before getting nosed out for fourth.
These are good horses that are considerably fresher than Chrome. There's a reason no horse has won the Triple Crown in 35 years, and fresh horses like these are often the reason.
Chrome can make his own trip, so it's going to be a war in that long, quarter-mile finish into the record books. Expect this group to factor in strongly down the home stretch.
3. What About Those Two New Shooters?
Tonalist has the added benefit of having won a the local prep race for the Belmont Stakes: the Peter Pan Stakes. He won the nine-furlong test in a respectable 1:48.30. However, it was over a sealed, muddy track. If it rains the day of the Belmont Stakes, expect Tonalist to be bet-heavy.
Tonalist does have a front-running style, and if he gets loose on the lead, he could be a threat. That's a huge "if." Social Inclusion will be in this race, and he'll want the lead. If the pace is slow enough, Chrome will be on or near the lead, too. Tonalist won't get an easy trip, though he is by Tapit, one of the hottest sires on the planet, and has to be respected.
So, too, should Commissioner, Pletcher's second horse in the field. Commissioner was second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan and has a Triple-A pedigree with A.P. Indy being his daddy, the 1992 Belmont winner. He was galloping lightly down the stretch in the Peter Pan, so he should be fresh. It could be that he didn't care for the sealed track, but to run second in the slop could make him dangerous on a fast track.
These two haven't spent a stride inside the Triple Crown and are stepping into deep waters. There are two Grade 1 winners in this field (Chrome and Wicked Strong), not to mention other graded stakes winners. It makes them hard to like with so many others well-seasoned and weathered by the Triple Crown.
They may just be lucky enough to be in attendance for the most popular Belmont in 10 years.
2. Will This Be the Most Popular Belmont Since 2004?
Smarty Jones ran his Belmont Stakes before 120,139 very depressed fans—fans who saw him come up just one length shy of the Triple Crown. Smarty was a "people's horse." If that sounds familiar, that's because California Chrome is also a people's horse, being owned by Dumba-- Partners.
If the weather is good, just like it was for Smarty Jones' run, there's a chance that 120,139 people could have company. The outspoken ownership, the trainer in advanced years, the jockey who has been here before... It all lines up similarly to the Smarty Party.
Now that "Nasalgate" is over, everyone can focus on the condition of the horse and whether or not this colt can pull of what has been impossible for the past 35 years.
NBC's ratings will rival that of Smarty Jones. Smarty drew over 21 million people to the television, and Chrome will rival that.
Attendance prediction: 116,443
Ratings prediction: 19.4
1. Will We Have a Triple Chrome?
For the next two-and-a-half weeks, all the talk swirling around Belmont Park and horse racing will be whether or not California Chrome can win the Triple Crown.
Usually the Kentucky Derby taxes the winner to the point where the Preakness is a matter of adrenaline. With the Belmont, the horse is on fumes. Chrome is different. He won the Derby nice and easy. It was so easy and his time so pedestrian (2:03.66) that people were calling him a fraud.
The Preakness silenced Chrome's critics by the way he was able to accelerate for an entire half-mile to separate himself from the talented Social Inclusion and the late-charging Ride On Curlin.
Social Inclusion forced Chrome's tactics a furlong too soon, but Chrome rose to the occasion.
Unlike many of the Triple Crown threats before Chrome, Chrome's running style may be the most favorable. Smarty Jones was able to relax in the Derby and Preakness, but he spent most of his time tugging to the lead in the Belmont. He was cranked in 2004 and was too taxed too early. He nearly won the darn thing. In 2008, Big Brown's body chemistry was all kinds of messed up, and he got stepped on leaving the gate. He was eased and didn't finish.
Chrome chooses his own adventure; he makes his own trip. He proved that in the Derby and the Preakness. No more will that be important than in the Belmont Stakes, a race that tests a horse's physical and mental capacities. It's a long way around Belmont's oval, and Chrome, though far from regally bred, has the proper mix of talent and awareness to make this thing happen.
It's been far too long, and maybe Chrome is the best horse since Real Quiet (relative to his own generation, of course). All the attention, all the cameras and really, the whole globe, will be tuning in to see if Chrome will join two other chestnuts—Secretariat and Affirmed—in the Triple Crown fraternity.