When California Chrome races for a Triple Crown at the 2014 Belmont Stakes, he'll be the horse to beat in the eyes of everyone in the field and everyone watching around the world.
Chrome was the favorite at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico, cruising to a Kentucky Derby victory before taking the Preakness as well.
Though Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin have gotten some credit for giving him the closest thing to challenges, Chrome has not been threatened significantly in his Triple Crown chase.
Belmont presents a different challenge, though. The 1.5-mile track calls for endurance rather than acceleration, unlike either of the races that precede it. The Test of the Champion got its nickname for a reason: It is the most grueling challenge and the degree of difficulty makes it anyone's race.
|Potential 2014 Belmont Stakes Field|
|California Chrome||Art Sherman||Victor Espinoza|
|Commanding Curve||Dallas Stewart||Shaun Bridgmohan|
|Commissioner||Todd Pletcher||Javier Castellano|
|General a Rod||Mike Maker||Rosie Napravnik|
|Kid Cruz||Linda Rice||undecided|
|Matuszak||Bill Mott||Mike Smith|
|Medal Count||Dale L. Romans||Robby Albarado|
|Ride On Curlin||Billy Gowan||John Velazquez|
|Samraat||Rick Violette||Jose Ortiz|
|Social Inclusion||Manny Azpurua||Undecided|
|Tonalist||Christophe Clement||Joel Rosario|
|Wicked Strong||Jimmy Jerkens||Rajiv Maragh|
|Source: DRF.com; Information updated as of June 2.|
The 1 True Contender
With that said, California Chrome remains in a class by himself.
No horse rivals him in terms of his athleticism, and given his recent performances, he has earned the distinction of being favored at Belmont as well. Bodog (h/t OddsShark) has his odds of winning at 1-1 in its Stakes preview.
Though the distance is new for him and changes how jockey Victor Espinoza will pace his ride, early signs from workouts, per Blood-Horse (h/t ESPN.com), are positive:
The son of Lucky Pulpit went four furlongs in a sharp :47.69 seconds Saturday under regular rider Victor Espinoza, and galloped out monstrously. He was caught in :59.93 seconds for five furlongs by NYRA clockers, 1:12.95 for six, and 1:26.28 for seven over a tightly packed Belmont oval.
"Chrome came out of the work in great shape," reported Alan Sherman, son of California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman. "He was pulling [exercise rider] Willie [Delgado] around the shed row this morning. Everything is cold and tight and we're ready for Saturday."
That short-distance speed shouldn't come as a surprise. Chrome built his lead at both of his prior Triple Crown wins with sudden and rapid bursts from the pack at the top of the stretch.
What matters is how he sustains his speed over the long track, and these early numbers are a good sign. He has given his camp even greater confidence and is in position to make history.
The Potential Spoilers
Social Inclusion was the toast of the new shooters at Pimlico, and though he came in third, he finished eight lengths behind Chrome. Since then, the allure seems to have faded, as Bodog has him going off at 33-1 odds before the draw.
Heading into the Preakness, Inclusion's edge wasn't just the hope that he could match Chrome's speed, but that the extra rest Inclusion had after not racing the Derby would give him the advantage.
Rest didn't wind up being a factor on Pimlico's short track, but everyone seems to be forgetting now that Social Inclusion can really run.
He had the fastest workout of any potential Stakes entry. However, according to Newsday's Ed McNamara, Inclusion's nerves off the track might prohibit him from racing in the main event:
"He was acting up a little bit," owner Ron Sanchez said. "He started getting a bit nervous and sweaty."
Sanchez said he was "disappointed" and that his brilliant colt was "70/30" to skip the $1.5-million Belmont and run instead on the undercard in the 7-furlong, $500,000 Woody Stephens Stakes.
"We have to do it again [Wednesday] and then we'll see, Sanchez said. "If the entries were taken [Monday], we wouldn't run in the Belmont. It wouldn't make any sense."
If his head's in the right place, Inclusion has as much talent as the favorite. Despite lowered expectations this time around, he could be the one to pull off the upset.
On the other hand, unlike at the Preakness, rest could absolutely be a significant factor at Belmont given the long-haul nature of the race.
That works in Wicked Strong's favor.
He was the first horse to beat Social Inclusion, overcoming the Wood Memorial favorite after he had already moved to the front and powering past him for the stakes victory. Wicked Strong went on to finish fourth, though far behind Chrome, at the Derby.
Since then, Strong has not raced, leaving him fresher for a physically taxing Belmont run.
In a press release (via Paulick Report), trainer Jimmy Jerkens said that he's confident in his horse's workouts and is being mindful of not overexerting him before the race:
“He’ll probably just gallop into the race,” said Jerkens. “He gallops pretty steadily. I blew him out at Churchill because he wasn’t really getting into the bridle when he galloped. He was really distracted, which is why we gave him a little something.”
Locked in and energized, Strong has shown his ability to beat the most talented horses around. At the Belmont Stakes, he'll have a chance to prove it again against California Chrome.