In an era where everything changes on a second-by-second basis, immortality is rare to achieve. Sports is the one arena where it is possible to make history in an instant, which is what makes California Chrome's pursuit for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes so captivating.
Even though we have been in this position before—12 times since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978—only to see the horse stumble in the final leg. I'll Have Another was the last thoroughbred to be in this position two years ago but was unable to run the Belmont due to a leg injury.
If you're a superstitious person, I'll Have Another's injury made you think that no horse was physically capable of pulling off this most impressive feat of winning three races in a four-week span.
Now it's California Chrome's turn to prove that everything that's happened since Affirmed was just a case of bad luck. With all eyes on the stud from the Sunshine State, here are our predictions for the race.
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The Belmont Will Be The Closest Triple Crown Race
California Chrome winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes is impressive enough on its own, but when you consider the way he's won these races it elevates everything that has happened.
Even though the Victor Espinoza-led horse was "only" credited with a 1.75-length victory at Churchill Downs, the jockey appeared to slow his horse down in the final stretch because he was so far ahead.
After the race, Espinoza told Darren Rogers of KentuckyDerby.com that the performance was nothing new for California Chrome: "This was a typical race for him. He ran like he always does. Art (Sherman) just said: 'You know him, ride him.' I had the trip I wanted. I don't mess with him too much. I just stretch his legs and little bit and then let him do his thing."
That victory was followed up by a 1.5-length victory over Ride On Curlin at Pimlico. These races haven't been close, so why should things be different at the Belmont Stakes?
For starters, the field is much better than it was at the Preakness Stakes. Even with Hoppertunity, who was the second favorite for the Kentucky Derby before an injury forced him out, won't run this week, several Derby contenders like Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong and Samraat are back.
The difference between what California Chrome did to the field on May 3 and what will happen this weekend is the track.
There's a reason the Belmont Stakes trips up so many Triple Crown contenders. At 12 furlongs, it's the longest race and requires the jockey to pace his horse before unleashing the fury down the stretch.
Not every horse is capable of sticking with the pack long enough to make the final push work, or they exert so much energy out of the gate that the extra length destroys their stamina.
Even if California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, it's not going to be in the same dominating fashion that we have seen him win races up to this point. It won't ultimately matter how much he wins by, just as long as he wins, but expect a more competitive race.
Victor Espinoza Will Decide the Fate of California Chrome
When you watch horse racing on television, how often do you really stop to think about the jockey? It doesn't happen because all eyes are focused on the thing doing all the running. Then when it's over, a majority of the conversation is about the horse.
Who is the biggest threat to California Chrome at the Belmont Stakes?
It's true that the horse has to have the raw natural ability to win a race, but don't underestimate the value of a jockey.
Espinoza has a rare opportunity with a second chance to win a Triple Crown, previously guiding War Emblem to victory at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002 before running out of steam down the stretch at the Belmont Stakes.
Looking back at that 2002 Belmont race, Espinoza showed his brilliance guiding War Emblem to the front of the pack after the horse got out of the gate horribly. He ran out of steam down the stretch, but to recover in that fashion was masterful.
Espinoza clearly understands the opportunity at his feet right now, when discussing the differences between War Emblem and California Chrome in an interview with Steve Serby of the New York Post:
California Chrome is a little bit more calm, more professional. War Emblem, he was like a little bit crazy. He [didn’t] care about anything, he just [wanted] to run as fast as he can, and he used to like to go in the front, he [didn’t] like to being behind. California Chrome, he’s more mellow, he listens to me more than War Emblem. War Emblem, no, he [had a] very hard head.
You need a jockey who understands what a horse can do and how they run. Espinoza's rapport with California Chrome has been exciting to watch, so you know the jockey will put his horse in the best possible spot to win the Belmont.
It does help that California Chrome's got such a light, easy gallop that he can stay with the field as long as possible before exploding, but Espinoza's job is knowing when to unleash that fury. It will have to be later than usual because the track is long.
History Will Be Made...
Thanks to his dominance on the track, it's almost too easy to predict California Chrome will win the Belmont Stakes. Sometimes, though, the simplest answer is the right one. No other horse has been able to present a challenge so far.
By all accounts, California Chrome's tune-up sessions have been spot on. Trainer Alan Sherman told The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, that practice has been incredible.
"I couldn't ask for anything more," Sherman said. "It was a perfect work. He's ready. ... I'm confident in this horse and always have been. We've still got to run the race."
There's a bond, almost like a marriage, between California Chrome and Espinoza that suggests even a bad start can be saved because the jockey understands the horse's strengths and weaknesses, as Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated noted.
When Chrome tired at the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby, Espinoza reminded him to change leads. Even as Chrome habitually turns his head from side to side in the starting gate (his blinkers inhibit peripheral vision), Espinoza has taught him to break cleanly. Every small acceleration that Espinoza needs, Chrome provides.
The pieces are in place for history to be made. California Chrome has done everything possible to ensure the Triple Crown drought ends, and no one has proven to be enough of a challenge to suggest otherwise.
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