Belmont 2014: 10 Bold Predictions for Triple Crown's Final Leg
Horse racing doesn't need a Triple Crown winner so much as it needs a horse alive for the Triple Crown. The buzz is as good as the event. If California Chrome doesn't win the Belmont Stakes, he'll still be a draw for the remainder of his career. If he comes out of the Belmont—win or lose—safe and sound, there's no reason why we won't see him run in the Haskell Invitational, Travers Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
But that's a long ways away.
It has been 35 years without a Triple Crown winner, and it's about time the sport gets one. Sure the sport doesn't necessarily need it, but one every few decades seems fair.
California Chrome is the first horse in the modern social media climate to be going for the Triple Crown. The last was Big Brown in 2008, but he just missed the Twitter and Instagram boom. But with so much focus on Chrome, it's high time to make some sense of this race, and what better way than to go bold.
Read on for some salty predictions suitable for all audiences.
10. Attendance Will Be Greater Than 2004
Ten years ago, Smarty Jones was a "people's horse" much the same way California Chrome is today. The weather was nice on June 5, 2004 and the attendance record still holds: 120,139.
This pre-dated the major social media boom. Friendster just wasn't cutting it.
Chrome has the benefit of a social media machine behind him that has fueled interest that we haven't seen since Smarty Jones. If the weather is nice, there's no reason to believe that the attendance can't threaten 120,000, even more, given the extra buzz conducted through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
That's a lot of $2 win tickets getting framed as souvenirs if Chrome wins the Triple Crown (not to mention free money for NYRA when those tickets go un-cashed.)
9. Samraat Will Be the Greatest Underlay
Samraat is a tough-as-galvanized-nails colt. After starting his career on a five-race win streak, he has since finished second to Wicked Strong in the Wood Memorial and fifth to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby.
He never runs a bad race. He hasn't yet and, to his credit, he has a win over the Belmont oval.
Back on Oct. 23, 2013, he broke his maiden in his first career start. That all sounds good, and that will draw attention and that's why he won't be a great value pick. He doesn't have quite the stamina to hang in this race. That experience at Belmont will shine an undeserved spotlight on him.
He is a nice horse, and he's going to win some solid stakes races this summer (maybe the Grade 2 nine-furlong Jim Dandy at Saratoga?).
Twelve furlongs at Belmont? Too much, especially at the odds he'll likely go off at.
Samraat did turn in a nice workout at nearby Aqueduct away from the hustle of Belmont Park, a mile in one minute, 47.55 seconds.
"It was very, very good," said Samraat's trainer, Rick Violette. "He went the last quarter in :24, which was just what we were looking for. He didn't break any stop watches, but it was pretty cool."
8. Pletcher Won't Hit the Board
The Preakness Stakes is the plague for Todd Pletcher. He empties his clip at the Derby, skips the Preakness to reload and takes aim at the Belmont Stakes. That's how he won the Belmont Stakes in 2007 and 2013.
In 2007, he won the Kentucky Oaks with Rags to Riches, then wheeled her back five weeks later for a thrilling win over Curlin. In 2013, he ran Palace Malice in the Derby, where he basically ran off and set a brutal pace. Pletcher took the blinkers off him and Palace Malice won the Belmont.
Pletcher has two possible entries in the Belmont this year with Commissioner and Matterhorn. Neither ran in the Derby. Neither ran in any of the Triple Crown races.
Matterhorn finished fourth to Belmont contender Tonalist in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes but hasn't won a race since his debut at Aqueduct in November.
Pletcher's best horse in the race could be Commissioner, who finished second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan. Commissioner didn't get a great vote of confidence during a recent workout. He breezed in company with Intense Holiday (who broke down with a non life-threatening, non-displaced condylar fracture).
A Daily Racing Form clocker said, "[Intense Holiday] usually works tremendously, and today he got beat by Commissioner."
Pletcher appears to be sending out a junior varsity team to the Belmont. He withrdrew Danza and now Intense Holiday from the Belmont. Things aren't looking up for the new all-time earnings leader.
7. California Chrome Wears the Bull's Eye
Ten years ago, three horses took aim at Smarty Jones: Purge, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington.
In conversations I've had with John Servis, trainer to Smarty Jones, Stewart Elliott, Smarty's jockey and Pat Chapman, Smarty's owner, they all felt Smarty was being hunted at the cost of their own horses.
Servis thought it was only natural that Smarty would be the focus. Smarty did win the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths. But he thought it was a bit of stretch the way those three horses gunned after his colt. And Smarty still lost by only one length.
Smarty proved he could relax in the Derby and the Preakness. In the Belmont, the longest of the three races, Smarty was keyed up and on go from the break.
Chrome will have the same bull's eye. It will be up to his jockey to settle him down and let him cruise. Then, hopefully not too soon, he'll hit the gas pedal and turn Chrome loose. That's within Victor Espinoza's control. What isn't is the other riders who want to beat him.
6. The Best Jockey Will Win the Belmont
There were some interesting moves in the saddle. Joel Rosario made a very telling move by by leaving Ride On Curlin for Tonalist, the winner of the Peter Pan at Belmont. That could have more to do with staying in trainer Christophe Clement's good faith (Clement has many horses stabled in New York, where Rosario's main business is) than suggesting Ride On Curlin isn't a worthy contender.
Ride On Curlin will get his fifth rider in five races, this time with Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Apparently, as soon as the Preakness was over, trainer Billy Gowan got a call from Angel Cordero, Velazqeuz' agent, and said, "If you have any issues, I have Johnny V."
Velazquez has won the Belmont twice with Rags to Riches (2007) and Union Rags (2012).
"He knows the track as well as anybody," Gowan told the Courier-Journal. "I'm glad to have him. I think my horse will love a mile and a half."
Victor Espinoza, Chrome's jockey, was here in 2002 aboard War Emblem with a shot at the Triple Crown. He faltered then, but he's hot and has the experience of being here before.
Rosie Napravnik gets the mount on General a Rod. The General was ridden by Javier Castellano in the Preakness, but Castellano moved off him for the Pletcher-trained Commissioner.
There's a ton of moving parts, and it's going to be as much a jockey's race this as any.
5. We'll See the True Medal Count
Apparently, trainer Dale Romans watched the Kentucky Derby replay over and over again. He watched Medal Count finish eighth with every replay and realized he should have hit the board. Romans told Churchill Downs:
Coming out of the Derby, I didn’t know what I was going to do with him that day. After a couple days, he got back to training and he was doing so well. I went back and watched the Derby two or three times and he obviously should have been right there. He wasn’t going to beat the winner but I think he could have possibly been second and obviously been third.
Medal Count has been training like his tail's on fire with several bullet works at Churchill. He reunites with Robby Albarado, who rode Medal Count to a solid second in the Blue Grass Stakes (and eighth in the Derby).
If nothing else, we're going to see who the real Medal Count is, whether he's a legitimate dirt horse, or if his career will be better spent on grass from here on out.
4. Ride On Curlin Will Be in the Mix
It's really unbelievable. Here's a horse who has knocked on the door in several Grade 1 races, and he can't keep a jockey. Calvin Borel gave him a pretty awful ride in the Derby. He was fired.
Joel Rosario rode him beautifully in the Preakness and got second. Rosario quit.
Now Ride On Curlin gets the services of John Velazquez, a jockey who beat Curlin aboard Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont Stakes.
Ride On Curlin is a hit-the-board machine. Couple that with Velazquez' knowledge and comfort at Belmont Park and Ride On Curlin's stock could rise.
3. A Horse in the Second Flight Will Win
The Belmont Stakes often gets people thinking that deep closers can win. That's a myth. People see a horse closing like a rocket in the Derby and think, "Man, if he had an extra furlong, he would have won. He's going to win the Belmont."
One-run horses need a hot pace, without that pace it doesn't matter how long or short a race is. The horses with the best chance to win are either speed horses who get loose on the lead or trackers/raters in the second flight sitting/relaxing off the pace.
Whoever is relaxing in that second tier is the likely winner.
And it may just be...
2. A Derby Horse Will Win the Belmont Stakes
Nine out of the last 11 horses that won the Belmont Stakes ran in the Derby.* Some of them ran in all three legs, some skipped the Preakness, but no matter what, the seasoning the horses get from the Derby means something.
Just qualifying for the Derby means they likely won significant Grade 1 prep, which puts them in the varsity category. We're talking good, talented horses that reach the Derby. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that they run well and win the Belmont.
Who are they in this field? California Chrome, Wicked Strong, General a Rod, Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve and Medal Count. If history is any indicator of who will win this race, it's one of those five. And if history is any indicator, California Chrome probably won't win since it has been 35 years since a horse won the Triple Crown. That leaves you with a one-in-four chance of picking the Belmont winner.
Still, the boldest prediction makes it all moot. That's because ...
*: Rags to Riches won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby.
1. California Chrome Will Win the Triple Crown
It's time. To borrow a cliched line, the stars have aligned for this horse to win the Triple Crown.
He's got the talent. He's got the running style. He's head-and-shoulders above his peers. His jockey has been through it before.
Those four things stack the deck in his favor. Chrome can run on the lead but doesn't need it. He can relax and cruise and when Victor Espinoza says, "Go," Chrome surges into the bridle.
Had Big Brown (2008) been handled better, he could have and should have won the Triple Crown. He was managed by the pariah Rick Dutrow. Big Brown was taken off his steroids before the race, which played tricks to his body chemistry (in my opinion). And in a bout of racing karma for his handlers, it was one of the hottest days on record. Big Brown laid an egg.
Chrome has been handled to perfection by pure gentlemen. When Chrome turns for home on June 7 and starts to open up, it's going to be something special. He's training so well he could open up. He could win by a pole. Get ready. It's time for history. It's time for No. 12.
Espinoza told NYRA:
I'm more confident this time than in 2002. With War Emblem, he only had one way to go: in the front. It was not that easy for me to ride him; it was difficult [which is] typical when you have a front-running horse. You don't have many options. If something happens, that's it. Your chances are gone. With California Chrome, it's different. I have a lot of options with California Chrome. I believe I have a better chance than I did in 2002 because I have a different kind of horse.