As race day approaches, the perception surrounding the horses in the 2014 Belmont Stakes has begun to crystallize. By now, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome has earned unanimous recognition as the heavy favorite, with a group of four to five strong challengers behind him.
However, that does not mean that the news has stopped flowing from Belmont Park. Whether it be horse racing experts making last-minute observations or owners and trainers arriving at the scene, the buzz continues to build leading up to Saturday evening.
For the racing enthusiasts, here are all the latest developments and analysis on the horses' chances.
California Chrome's Trainer and Co-Owner Reunite
The star of the race saw some familiar faces when trainer Art Sherman and co-owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn arrived at Belmont Park to see their horse. According to the Associated Press (via USA Today), Sherman appeared upbeat about Chrome's behavior:
Sherman says he knows the colt is all right because he tried to bite the trainer, thinking Sherman had his favorite cookies in his hand. He didn't, but a groom produced the treats for California Chrome.
Yahoo's Pat Forde echoed the report's sentiment, noting that Sherman and Coburn have seemed loose despite the high stakes and historic implications:
Coming off six consecutive wins with jockey Victor Espinoza, Chrome and his owners have every reason to carry themselves with confidence. Apart from Tonalist, who did not run in either the Derby or Preakness, Chrome has defeated every other top contender in the field.
Racing three times in five weeks is always difficult, and the 12-furlong distance is sure to challenge Chrome's propensity to race out in front. Nevertheless, as race day approaches, it has become increasingly difficult to envision a scenario in which Chrome does not stand an excellent chance at ending the 36-year Triple Crown drought.
Ride on Curlin Breezes in Last Run
The Preakness runner-up stands as one of the likeliest spoilers in the field. Sired by 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, Ride on Curlin appears strong as he attempts to continue his lineage's Triple Crown pedigree. According to ESPN's Claire Novak, trainer Billy Gowan was extremely pleased with his horse's final drills:
I thought he went super. [Beccia] went just like I told him. I told him to go slow the first quarter and he went in :27 seconds, went the last quarter in :24 seconds. It was just what we wanted, mainly just to get some air into him. If I work him a half-mile he may get too speed crazy, so as long as he was going slow, that's all we needed.
Novak later posted video of the run, courtesy of Bloodhorse.com:
Ride on Curlin closed extremely strong at Pimlico, finishing just a length and a half behind California Chrome's impressive time. The extra length at Belmont likely would have resulted in a victory, though it's hard to determine whether or not either horse could have sustained that pace for significantly longer.
Regardless, unlike California Chrome, Ride on Curlin has some experience at Belmont Park, having finished third in the Grade 1 Foxwoods Champagne Stakes back in October. If he can continue to hang close as he typically does, Ride on Curlin might have enough steam to derail Chrome's Triple Crown threat.
Wicked Strong Ready for Redemption
Headed into the Derby, Wicked Strong was one of the oddsmakers' top challengers to Chrome. However, following a fourth-place finish at Churchill Downs, Wicked Strong skipped the Preakness in favor of a five-week respite.
Consequently, he's a little more under the radar than before the Derby. Nonetheless, as NYRA.com reports (via BelmontStakes.com), Jimmy Jerkens is confident about his horse's chances following a strong five-furlong run:
Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong had a quiet morning, walking the shed row of trainer Jimmy Jerkens' barn following Sunday's bullet five-furlong breeze in 59.10 seconds over Belmont's training track.
'Unless you thought your horse had a real good excuse, which I guess we did, we just thought it would have been better to skip the Preakness,' Jerkens said. 'We thought we had the best shot in the Belmont out of all of them, even before we went to Kentucky. There's nothing like the Derby, but we thought the Belmont fit the horse a little better.'
Wicked Strong certainly has the pedigree to win, as he has bloodlines to 1999 Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, per Bloodhorse.com. Moreover, considering the front-running strategies of top contenders like Chrome and Tonalist, it might behoove Wicked Strong to try a new strategy:
Jerkens' horse may be a second-level contender by public perception, but he is certainly capable of winning this race. Though more inconsistent than some of the other horses, Wicked Strong's ceiling is also higher than anyone besides Chrome. Thus, he must be considered a serious contender to take home the third Triple Crown leg.