The 146th running of the Belmont Stakes gets underway Saturday in Elmont, New York, with California Chrome dominating headlines in his quest to become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
One of Affirmed's co-owners, Patrice Wolfson, is among those hoping that California Chrome can pull off the elusive feat at Belmont Park.
"You just like to see a great horse win it and I think he's got the potential to be a great horse, so we'll be cheering for him," said Wolfson, per The Associated Press' Beth Harris.
California Chrome pulled away in the Kentucky Derby down the final stretch and managed to hold off a late push by Ride On Curlin at the Preakness Stakes. Jockey Victor Espinoza hasn't lost in the irons, so he figures to be in the hunt for the winner's circle despite the increased distance to 1 1/2 miles at this track.
According to the race's official website, the post time for Saturday's main attraction is at 6:52 p.m. ET, and the post position draw will take place on Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET. Here is a look at the TV schedule, along with the best prospective entries in the 2014 Belmont Stakes field.
|2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.||Belmont Park Live||NBC Sports Network|
|4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.||Belmont Stakes Coverage||NBC|
|7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.||Belmont Post-Race Show||NBC Sports Network|
Analyzing Top Contenders
It doesn't seem to matter where California Chrome starts from. More often than not, he's gotten off to slower starts and hung back before making his move later in the race. That type of strategy bodes well at Belmont Park, but the key will be to have enough endurance to execute it again.
Espinoza hasn't had to quite push his horse to maximum capacity just yet, so there should be something extra in the tank for California Chrome to flash as he pushes toward potential history.
All indications are positive based on California Chrome's brilliant final workout before the race this last Saturday morning, according to expert witness Steve Haskin of BloodHorse.com:
California Chrome had one of the best works I've seen in a very long time, including sensational gallop-out— Steve Haskin (@SteveHaskin) May 31, 2014
California Chrome is the best specimen in the field. Though this one promises to be tougher than the Preakness, all of the top challengers competed in either the Kentucky Derby or at Pimlico, so California Chrome has bested them before.
A longer track should lend to the higher-quality horses remaining in contention toward the end. Even if California Chrome is slower out of the starting gates, it shouldn't be enough to deter him from finishing in the money—and most likely becoming the most notable Belmont Stakes champion in decades.
The No. 2 morning-line favorite at Churchill Downs finished a disappointing fourth in the first leg of the Triple Crown, but he has the skills to thrive on 12 furlongs. Wicked Strong's pedigree includes that of Charismatic, who fell short in the Belmont Stakes in pursuit of the Triple Crown in 1999.
That suggests his stamina may not be up to snuff, yet it also means Wicked Strong has a legitimate background to compete well in the biggest horse races. Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form broke down Wicked Strong's most recent workout:
Wicked Strong on training track 5/8 59.17 out 113.08 worked behind Pletcher team that included Palace Malice final 3/8 34.45 w/o urging— Mike Welsch (@DRFWelsch) June 1, 2014
Wicked Strong has proven capable of beating an elite field before with his victorious jaunt at the Wood Memorial Stakes. His Grade 1 win was what garnered him such acclaim ahead of the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer James A. Jerkens has never won a Triple Crown race, but he's evidently felt good enough about Wicked Strong to run him in two of this year's three premier competitions. It didn't result in a top-three finish the first time around. With a similar slate of adversaries facing off in Elmont, don't be surprised if Wicked Strong emerges as a surprise winner.
At the very least, Wicked Strong figures to have the physical ability best built to rival California Chrome as long as his jockey guides him right over the lengthy Belmont Park test.
It's as if trainer Dallas Stewart is in on some joke that no one else can crack. For the second straight year, he took a long shot to the Kentucky Derby and saw him finish in second—first in 2013 with Golden Soul, then this last May thanks to Commanding Curve's impressive trip.
Golden Soul entered the previous Belmont Stakes and managed no better than ninth place. Something more is expected from Commanding Curve in this instance. Based on his late surge down the final stretch in Louisville, there is serious upside to explore.
J.J. Hysell of the Courier-Journal believes that while Wicked Strong is formidable, Commanding Curve is an entry who can't be counted out at pulling off an improbable Triple Crown bubble burst:
To have the endurance in competing at the Kentucky Derby as a long shot is attention-grabbing enough, but the way Commanding Curve carried himself made him appear to belong in the money. It was no fluke, because many other Grade 1 winners fell by the wayside as he made his last, albeit vain effort to catch California Chrome.
Who is California Chrome's most dangerous Belmont Stakes challenger?
A rapid progression has seen Commanding Curve go from sixth in the Risen Star Stakes to third in the Louisiana Derby—both Grade 2 races. The fact that he continued that trend at Churchill Downs makes it worth wagering on Commanding Curve to be a top-three finisher at Belmont Park as well.
Although it would be nice to see Wicked Strong redeem himself for a lackluster Kentucky Derby or for Commanding Curve to rise from relative obscurity to claim glory, they would spoil a potential landmark achievement.
California Chrome himself is something of an epic story. Trainer Art Sherman, 77, was the oldest to have a Kentucky Derby winner, and California Chrome's rise was rooted in humble beginnings, with a $10,000 initial investment.
Despite California Chrome's impending status as the prohibitive favorite, he is more of a dark horse based on his background. He has been bucking the odds by thriving in this rather miraculous Triple Crown run. For horse racing's sake and the best storyline to market the sport's future, California Chrome needs to come out on top in the appropriately dubbed "Test of the Champion."