Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome's Triple Crown hopes are alive and well. After two decisive victories on horse racing's biggest stages, the colt simply looks unbeatable.
But, is he?
The 2014 Belmont Stakes will be his biggest obstacle yet. Not only does he have to contend with a very strong field, but the increased distance of the race could pose a severe threat to his bid for the Triple Crown.
California Chrome won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby and the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, but competitors were able to gain some ground on him down the final stretch of both races.
That's not a good sign considering the Belmont Stakes is a 1 1/2-mile race.
After all, following his Preakness win, some were already concerned with the horse's ability to win at Belmont Park due to the distance.
Richard Durrett of ESPN was one such analyst, according to his post-Preakness tweet:
Perfect ride for California Chrome. Sure hope horse can handle Belmont distance. We'll be fun to watch.— Richard Durrett (@espn_durrett) May 17, 2014
Although, trainer Art Sherman isn't concerned, according to a tweet from KY Derby Contenders:
Art Sherman: "If you have a speed horse who will rate, you are always dangerous." No worries about #BelmontStakes distance.— KY Derby Contenders (@DerbyContenders) May 17, 2014
While we decide if we should worry or not, let's take a quick glance back in time.
During the Kentucky Derby, veteran jockey Victor Espinoza was brilliant on the California-bred's reins. He kept California Chrome on a nice pace near the front of the pack until the colt burst to the lead during the backstretch.
California Chrome quickly gained a four-length lead on the field, but he only won by 1 3/4 lengths over a surging Commanding Curve.
Here's a look at the entire race:
Another horse involved in the Derby who figures to be a top contender for the Belmont Stakes is Wicked Strong.
Although he finished in fourth place in the Derby, he's a great closer that simply had too much ground to cover after starting way outside at gate No. 20.
Marcus Hersh of the Daily Racing Form tweeted his prediction regarding Wicked Strong at Belmont:
Recall tweeting day after Derby that Cal Chrome would win Preakness & lose Belmont to Wicked Strong. Standing by that. WS by 3/4.— Marcus Hersh (@DRFHersh) May 19, 2014
We saw more of the same at the Preakness Stakes.
Employing the same strategy, Espinoza rallied during the backstretch to jolt out in front of the pack once more. This time, we saw Ride On Curlin quickly closing from the outside down the final furlong.
Both horses maintained similar speeds near the finish line, but California Chrome defeated Ride On Curlin by 1 1/2 lengths.
Take a look at the race here:
It's easy to think the race's outcome may have shifted had Ride On Curlin began in a better position—he started from the far outside No. 10 post and had to make up plenty of ground.
Those aren't the only horses poised to make a run at Belmont Park, though.
Another strong contender is Triple Crown newcomer Tonalist.
Tonalist is experienced at the track, having won the Peter Pan Stakes there earlier this year.
A speedy horse with plenty of endurance and closing speed, Tonalist cannot be counted out. Here's a look at his sparkling performance at Belmont Park:
With so many great closers comprising the field of the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome's lack of rest could come into play as well. With three big races in just five weeks, the race's other contenders have seen far more rest.
This isn't to say California Chrome can't win it all. Aside from Tonalist, he's already defeated each of the other aforementioned contenders.
He could certainly do it again, but this time around, it will be a far greater challenge.
Which horse is the biggest threat to California Chrome?
Right now, all we can do is speculate and wait for the post-position draw. Like each of the other Triple Crown races, the draw will play a huge part in the outcome of the Belmont Stakes.
Until then, the anticipation will continue to mount.
Can California Chrome become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978?
Absolutely. But he'll have to put on one dazzling show to get the job done.