When it comes to any horse race of the high-stakes variety, one can feel safe by rolling with familiar names and faces, despite the complete unpredictability of the sport.
This is especially the case at the 2014 Belmont Stakes, where California Chrome rules above all other comers, but only on paper before the gates open.
After that, anything can happen.
Still, the safest route for bettors, both of the serious and casual variety, is to roll with those who appear to be in a favorable situation. Let's break those pairs down.
146th running of the Belmont Stakes
When: Saturday, June 7
Where: Belmont Park in Elmont, New York
Time: Broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. ET
Post Time: 6:52 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
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Best Horses and Jockeys
California Chrome (Victor Espinoza)
Ever since Victor Espinoza climbed into the saddle and led California Chrome out of the gate some races ago, the two have been the most unstoppable duo in the sport.
California Chrome has always been an extremely athletic horse, despite humble beginnings, but Espinoza's ability to negotiate traffic—like he has in the first two legs of the Triple Crown—are what has put things over the top for the sport's most popular horse.
Perhaps it is the natural chemistry the two have, as Espinoza told Steve Serby of The New York Post that California Chrome is an easier ride than even War Emblem:
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 (laugh).
As for Espinoza himself, the oft-described problematic distance of the Belmont Stakes should not be an issue, as recorded by Marcus Hersh of Daily Racing Form:
Art Sherman's career record 1.5 miles on dirt: 7-2-1-0. Victor Espinoza 1.5 miles dirt 13-0-5-2.— Marcus Hersh (@DRFHersh) June 3, 2014
Suffice it to say, Espinoza knows a thing or two about getting the most out of his horses at the long distance. If that holds true for California Chrome, the event on Saturday will be a rout.
Ride On Curlin (John Velazquez)
Fans will recognize Ride On Curlin as the horse that came close to taking down California Chrome in Baltimore, before completely running out of gas.
Perhaps in part because of the premature push from jockey Joel Rosario, it will now be John Velazquez who rides atop Ride On Curlin in New York.
While Ride On Curlin is one of the lone horses to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year, a new jockey can certainly work wonders.
It just so happens that Velazquez is more than up to the task, as he won the 2004 and 2005 Eclipse Awards and seized first place at the Belmont Stakes back in 2007 atop Rags to Riches.
Like Espinoza, Velazquez certainly has what it takes to get the most from his horse. It won't be a shock to finally see Ride On Curlin nab a Grade 1 victory.
Matuszak (Mike Smith)
While Velazquez and Espinoza are fun to talk about, they don't hold a candle to Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
Now, Smith is not exactly atop a favorite in Matuszak, but there are times when that simply goes out the window.
This is one of those times.
Smith won the Belmont Stakes just a season ago atop Palace Malice, and by all accounts, including one from Mike Welsch of DLF, he already has Matuszak performing at a high level:
Matuszak impressive this a.m. in blinkers in co. 5/8's 1:00.92, final 1/4 in :23.12 going easy, galloped out strong in 1:13.80.— Mike Welsch (@DRFWelsch) June 1, 2014
No surprise there. Smith is one of the legends of the sport and makes any horse a contender, given the proper preparation and set of circumstances once the gate opens. Matuszak may be labeled as a heavy underdog, but Smith surely does not mind flying under the radar for once.