As the 2014 Belmont Stakes nears, California Chrome looks like the strongest Triple Crown favorite since Big Brown in 2008 and Smarty Jones in 2004.
OddsShark.com lists the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner as a -120 favorite to take home the Belmont and end horse racing's 36-year drought.
But neither of the two aforementioned horses took home the crown despite similarly overwhelming odds, illustrating the difficulty of winning three long races in five weeks. Chrome appears poised to buck the trend, but with some horses having skipped the Preakness for extra rest, he faces some daunting challenges.
Which thoroughbreds stand the best chance at knocking off Chrome and derailing his rags-to-riches tale? Here's a look at the biggest Belmont challengers.
Ride on Curlin
With a pedigree that includes former Preakness winner Curlin, Ride on Curlin looks like the strongest contender to defeat California Chrome.
The Pimlico runner-up closed fast on the eventual winner and likely would have won had the race been an extra furlong:
Fortunately for him, the Belmont will provide an opportunity to show that he is the superior horse over the distance. Like Chrome, Ride on Curlin will end up running all three Triple Crown races, so he does not get the same rest benefit as many other contenders.
Nevertheless, the colt has finished in the top three in seven of his last eight races—a strong sample size that indicates he is likely to make himself a factor down the stretch. He did have a somewhat similar experience in terms of workload as a two-year-old, running three races in seven weeks from September to October of 2013.
One of those races came at Belmont Park, where he finished third in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes.
Ride on Curlin has an edge in experience that few other horses can boast, giving him a puncher's chance against Chrome.
While most have focused on the trio of Ride on Curlin, Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve as the biggest Belmont challengers, Tonalist holds similar odds that make him worthy of recognition.
The Kentucky-bred colt is flying under the radar since he did not race in either the Derby or Preakness, but he comes into the Belmont as a sneaky contender to watch.
The horse's last run came on April 10 at the Peter Pan Stakes in Belmont Park, where he won the nine-furlong race. That's a bit shorter than what he'll face during the Belmont Stakes, but it's still important that Tonalist has proven capable of conquering the New York track.
He'll have the longest break between races of any of the top contenders—something that could help him down the stretch.
In fact, the owner of a prestigious thoroughbred stable pinpointed Tonalist as Chrome's only true challenger:
As the freshest horse, Tonalist may very well have the closing push needed to defeat California Chrome. Though it's tempting to default to the other Triple Crown horses as the names to watch, keep an eye on Tonalist as the stretch approaches.
The Race Course
This may seem like a bit of a cop-out but, in reality, California Chrome is talented enough to defeat any of the horses in the field. And apart from Tonalist and long shot, Commissioner, he already has defeated every horse in the field at either Churchill Downs or Pimlico.
Thus, Chrome's biggest challenge may be closing with the same speed that he has in the previous two Triple Crown races.
As ESPN's Michael Freer indicates, the horse's six-race winning streak has been built upon a change in philosophy that involves him setting the pace ahead of the stretch run:
In his final two races under Alberto Delgado, California Chrome was never near the front of the pack at any point. But the move to Espinoza meant a change in the horse's approach to a race, putting him at or near the top of the lead early.
In his last six races, California Chrome was in first at the top of the stretch call in each race. In his first six races, the horse was first at the top of the stretch just twice.
That strategy will be more difficult to execute in the long Belmont track. Though he has demonstrated terrific closing burst, it's not hard to envision Chrome running out of gas as another horse passes him down the stretch.
He has overcome much-ballyhooed odds to emerge as a champion, but conquering Belmont represents California Chrome's toughest challenge to date.
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