On Wednesday, post positions were revealed for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, and all of the hype surrounding the 11-horse field centered on Triple Crown-hopeful California Chrome.
The prohibitive 3-5 morning-line favorite will break from post No. 2, seeking to become the first horse to pull off the industry's ultimate accomplishment since Affirmed swept the three Triple Crown races in 1978. ESPN's Darren Rovell observed how the stakes have increased since that time:
123%: Percentage increase in the Belmont Stakes purse since the last Triple Crown in 1978, factoring for inflation.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) June 4, 2014
There are several entries slated to run in Saturday's showcase at Belmont Park that figure to offer a challenge—and potentially dash California Chrome's dreams of racing into the record books.
This 1.5-mile race in Elmont, New York, will be a grueling test and should see the highest-quality horses emerge as the top finishers. That bodes well for California Chrome, but the considerable test ahead will require an excellent mount from jockey Victor Espinoza.
What follows is a look at the complete post positions and morning-line odds along with an overall preview for The Test of the Champion.
|1||Medal Count||Robbie Albarado||Dale Romans||20-1|
|2||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman||3-5|
|3||Matterhorn||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher||30-1|
|4||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart||15-1|
|5||Ride On Curlin||John Velazquez||Billy Gowan||12-1|
|6||Matuszak||Mike Smith||Bill Mott||30-1|
|7||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette||20-1|
|8||Commissioner||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher||20-1|
|9||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens||6-1|
|10||General a Rod||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker||20-1|
|11||Tonalist||Joel Rosario||Christophe Clement||8-1|
Belmont Stakes Preview
For the second Triple Crown race this season, Wicked Strong enters the Belmont Stakes as the No. 2 morning-line favorite—just as he was at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. The Wood Memorial Stakes winner finished fourth in Louisville and then opted to rest in order to prepare for Belmont Park rather than partake in the Preakness.
J.J. Hysell of the Courier-Journal suggests Wicked Strong is positioned well to succeed:
Post position not crucial in #BelmontStakes, but it's a good spot for Wicked Strong.— J.J. Hysell (@trifectabox) June 4, 2014
Wicked Strong's ninth post can, at the very least, help alleviate the traffic issues that may plague California Chrome closer to the rail ahead of the first turn. This is where jockey Rajiv Maragh can burst into immediate contention. Presuming the pace isn't too ambitious in the longest Triple Crown race, an early advantage on California Chrome can be had. The horse to beat is known as a bit of a slow starter.
Beginning in the second post isn't certain to doom California Chrome's Triple Crown bid, but ESPN Stats & Info notes how history doesn't promise a champion's glory:
Last Belmont Stakes fav to break from Post 2 was Silver Charm in 1997, also going for Triple Crown. Silver Charm finished 2nd to Touch Gold— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 4, 2014
The last Belmont Stakes winner to come from Post 2 was Tabasco Cat in 1994, 3 days before the last Stanley Cup won by the @NYRangers— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 4, 2014
Renowned pedigree expert Steve Roman feels the best is yet to come for California Chrome, though, per Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde:
I love this horse.What I love about him most is his maturity, his demeanor, his tractability. I have not seen this kind of push-button horse at this level in a long, long time. [...] I like this horse more than any North American runner I've seen since Ghostzapper (the 2004 Horse of the Year and Breeders Cup Classic winner). He's a man, and I think he's going to get better.
Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve was a long shot in the Run for the Roses, and he is still being somewhat disrespected following Wednesday's Belmont post-position draw, garnering 15-1 odds. Those odds figure to shorten before the horses take the starting gate, however, as Commanding Curve has proven himself capable of competing on the big stage.
The other horse projected to finish in the money based on the morning line is Tonalist. Joel Rosario will be in the irons and should be considered a serious threat to California Chrome starting furthest from the rail.
Rosario is one of the best jockeys working, and he won the Kentucky Derby last year aboard Orb. Los Alamitos race announcer Ed Burgart thinks highly of the trending horse:
IMO, the horse that California Chrome has to beat in Belmont is Tonalist. I loved his Peter Pan win and Christophe Clement is great trainer.— Ed Burgart (@qheddie) May 20, 2014
Tonalist won the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in May, so there's reason to believe he can thrive at this venue a second time. The big question will be whether distance may be his undoing, especially having to cover more ground toward the beginning due to being so far to the outside.
Who will win the 2014 Belmont Stakes?
As inspiring as dark horses can be in riding to the winner's circle, California Chrome will be the dominant storyline, regardless of how he fares. It will be a massive letdown if he can't cross the finish line first, even though the field is tougher than what he faced in the Preakness.
The whole reason so much fanfare surrounds this year's race is thanks to California Chrome's excellent work thus far. All won't be for naught if he doesn't come through, but the opportunity to achieve this extraordinary accomplishment has become so rare.
Presuming the distance does indeed bring the best specimens to the surface, look for California Chrome to live up to the hype and join the prestigious Triple Crown fraternity. There is reason to believe, based on his lack of eye-popping dominance in the prior two starts, that California Chrome will live up to Roman's words and put together his best performance of the Triple Crown season in riding to a benchmark triumph.
Some of the criticism that has been leveled at California Chrome has more to do with his fellow competitors. They are not viewed as the strongest crop of three-year-old colts, which has slightly diminished the horse's Triple Crown campaign. A virtuoso effort and wide margin of victory would hush all doubters, but trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome's connections will take a "W" any way it comes in Elmont.