As if winning the three most high-profile horse races in the sport wasn’t hard enough as it is, the most physically grueling event in the sport—the Belmont Stakes—just so happens to be last.
California Chrome dominated the Preakness and broke free from the field at the Kentucky Derby, but if he hopes to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, he will have to prevail over both the other competitors and the course itself.
The Belmont Stakes checks in at a mile-and-a-half long, which is the longest of the three Triple Crown races. Thus far, California Chrome has gotten off to a solid enough start to stay in contention and then turn on the closing speed on the way to victory.
Ironically, jockey Victor Espinoza won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002 aboard War Emblem and got off to a blazing start at the subsequent Belmont. However, he lost some steam heading into the final stretch and was overtaken.
That experience will help Espinoza going forward this year.
He knows now not to dip into California Chrome’s closing speed too early and sap his stamina in such a long race. Instead, Espinoza will guide his horse to a formidable enough start to stay in the middle of the pack and then turn on the jets in the final stretch.
It will be enough to win the Triple Crown.
What place will California Chrome finish?
While the prediction here is that California Chrome gets the job done, there is a reason the Triple Crown hasn’t happened since 1978. These are three grueling races in a short process with tons of media attention that horses simply aren’t accustomed to on a regular basis. What’s more, California Chrome is based in California, so he will have to traverse the entire country during this month-long stretch to end at the Belmont in New York.
Exercise rider Willie Delgado doesn’t think it will be an issue, though, via CBS New York: “He’s fit. Come the day of the race, like I always said, it’s all up to him and God. I can’t say enough. He’s really, really improving. Like I’ve always said, after each race he got better.”
Of course, there are the other contenders to keep in mind as well.
The Belmont promises to have a loaded field, but a few in particular jump out. Ride On Curlin, who is the son of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, was the runner-up at the Preakness and came on strong near the end. Stu Hammer of WOAY-TV points out that things may have been different if the track was as long as the one in Belmont:
Ride on Curlin closed on Chrome, but he was so far out in front he had enough to win if it were at Belmont, the longest track of the three.— Stu Hammer (@Stuart_Hammer) May 17, 2014
John Velazquez will be Ride On Curlin’s jockey, and he actually won the Belmont in 2007 aboard Rags to Riches and in 2012 aboard Union Rags. One of the best horses in the competition and a jockey that won the Belmont multiple times in the past will be a difficult combination to beat for California Chrome.
Speaking of jockeys, Mike Smith, who won the 2013 Belmont with Palace Malice, is back to defend his crown as jockey aboard Matuszak.
Then there is the matter of Commanding Curve, who finished in second place at the Kentucky Derby and didn’t compete at the Preakness. That means he will theoretically be fresher than California Chrome.
Still, most of the top competitors are horses that California Chrome has already beaten. He will do so yet again at his most difficult test yet and win the elusive Triple Crown.
Follow me on Twitter: