The blueprint for defeating California Chrome, if there is one, was drawn in 2004 when the undefeated Smarty Jones attempted to win the Belmont Stakes.
Unquestionably faster and more talented than his eight rivals, Smarty Jones and his jockey Stewart Elliott nevertheless fell victim to gang riding tactics by others on the backstretch of the massive 1 1/2-mile Belmont Park oval. After a moderate first half-mile, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, on Eddington, and Alex Solis, aboard Rock Hard Ten, took turns pushing Smarty Jones through third and fourth quarter-miles that were much faster than the first two.
By the time Smarty Jones had torn through a mile and a quarter in 2:00.52, both of those opponents had fallen away. He was desperately tiring in the stretch drive, however, and 36-1 long shot Birdstone came along and ran him down in the final strides.
California Chrome’s connections appear to be pushing all the right buttons in the days leading up to the race called “The Test of the Champion”—and the horse looks fantastic—but what others do to stop him from making history is out of their hands.
The possibility for this scenario to repeat itself grew when California Chrome drew inside, the No. 2 post, which will force him to break alertly and quickly get clear, so horses from the outside cannot come over and box him in.
New York Racing Association analyst Richard Migliore, a former top jockey who rode in four Belmonts, put it succinctly: “When there is a clear-cut horse to beat, it’s the other riders’ job, their responsibility, to try to compromise that horse’s trip within the boundaries of the rules.”
It is a dirty job, but they sometimes do it.
It is a fine line between riding to win and riding to beat the favorite. Bailey insisted that he did not purposely try to run Smarty Jones into the ground. Yet even Eddington’s trainer, Mark Hennig, thought otherwise. Bailey was off the horse for his next start and never rode Eddington again.
“I never saw two riders ride so hard to lose a race in my life," said Smarty Jones’ owner Roy Chapman. “They just were out for one thing: making sure Smarty didn't win.”
Jockey Edgar Prado, who rode Birdstone, was extremely apologetic for inheriting the victory in the Belmont.
“I'm very sorry for [trainer John Servis] and all the connections for Smarty Jones, but I had to do my job,” Prado said. “This is part of the business, and I'm very sorry it had to be me.”
When Big Brown was trying for the Triple Crown in 2008, the specter of the Smarty Jones race resurfaced.
“If somebody did something like that,” said Big Brown’s trainer Rick Dutrow beforehand, “they might get assassinated after the race.”
“I just cannot imagine that anybody would go do something stupid just to keep us from winning the race.”
As it turned out, Big Brown did not even finish the Belmont, mysteriously fading on the far turn and eased to a walk by jockey Kent Desormeaux.
In an interview last week, jockey Alberto Delgado, who rode California Chrome in five races last year, said the horse did not like to be down on the inside taking dirt in his face. He called his stretch run in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, in which another jockey hit California Chrome in the face with his whip, “kind of timid.”
Yet he also knows the horse has changed a lot since then.
“Unfortunately, I rode him when he was little bit green, a little immature,” Delgado said. “He was very talented, but he was still learning how to run. I went through the early stages with the horse. He was a boy and now he’s a man.”
Now, California Chrome appears to be a much more confident and tractable horse. In both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, he ran with the leaders and then, when asked, instantaneously separated himself from the field.
Neither had been factors early on in their races against California Chrome, but they were picking up the pieces at the end. Both are back for the Belmont.
Asked about tactics that might be used against California Chrome, Ride On Curlin’s trainer Billy Gowan said, “Nobody’s had the chance to pin him in—the horse has a lot of speed. I want to get a good run at him at the top of the stretch. I’d love to hook up with him. My horse doesn’t have any quit in him.”
Yet Ride On Curlin may need help from jockeys on other horses to get that opportunity. Still, Gowan did not like the opportunity of purposely trying to take the race away from California Chrome.
“I don’t think they should ride tactically against him,” said Gowan, who is replacing a Hall of Fame jockey, Calvin Borel, with another, John Velazquez, for the Belmont. “They should ride the way they think they can win the race. They have nine or 10 others to worry about in there.”
Migliore sees other landmines for California Chrome besides gang riding—namely whether the colt can get the 1 1/2-mile distance and whether the three races in five weeks will be too much for him.
“Smarty got beat by a horse that had time off, was fresher, and wanted the distance,” Migliore said. “That’s why it’s so hard: You have to carry your form to three different tracks for five weeks and three different distances. Then you are facing horses that have pointed for one specific race, and you’ve been through the whole circus."
“There are so many elements that go into this; so many things have to go right.”
Migliore, very much a fan as well as an analyst, wants to see California Chrome win the Triple Crown. He spoke of taking his son 13-year-old son, Joseph, to see Smarty Jones’ Belmont in hopes of witnessing history.
Yet, asked if he could see California Chrome being beaten, Migliore said, “I do, and I hate to say that.”
John Scheinman covered racing for eight years at The Washington Post, co-founded and edited Kentucky Confidential and contributes to the Blood-Horse. He lives in Baltimore. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.