California Chrome goes into Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes looking to join an elite group of 11 Triple Crown winners, and his betting odds are looking solid that the colt is about to make history.
It has been more than a generation since we last saw a Triple Crown winner, with Affirmed getting the job done in 1978. It was the same year Home Depot was founded, the first test tube baby was born, a Super Bowl advertisement cost just $168,000, and this horseplayer was sporting a spiffy looking ecru-flavored leisure suit.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will break from the No. 2 post and was installed as the 3-5 morning-line favorite. The colt has hovered between 4-5 and 6-5 according to early betting prices at Odds Shark the past couple of weeks.
Favorites going into the gate at betting odds of 3-5 are supposed to win, and more often than not, they do. California Chrome’s connections are as confident as ever as the colt heads to his third race in just five weeks.
"I feel better about this race than I have any other race, to be honest with you, just looking at the horse and saying, 'Wow,'" his trainer Art Sherman said, per the New York Racing Association's Phil Janack. "I see how far he's advanced. I know it'll be tougher going a mile and a half, but this horse is a good horse. I think he's the real McCoy. They better worry about me, I can tell you that."
Deja Vu All Over Again?
While California Chrome’s odds to make history are short, we have been here before. Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, a dozen horses have showed up in New York, and they all suffered defeat, some at very short betting odds.
The last was I’ll Have Another in 2012, and a tendon injury derailed his Triple Crown bid on the eve of the race. The morning-line favorite did not even make it to the race.
The last two that did start burned plenty of $2 souvenir tickets. Big Brown in 2008 and Smarty Jones in 2004 were both sent off at betting odds of 1-5 and failed to get the job done.
Big Brown was eased and did not finish the race, while Smarty Jones was run down by long shot Birdstone in the deep stretch, ending "Smarty Parties" early.
Real Quiet lost a photo finish in 1998 at odds of 4-5, and Sunday Silence got drilled by rival Easy Goer in 1989 at odds of 4-5. Toss in Alysheba at 4-5 in 1987 and Spectacular Bid at 1-5 odds in 1979, and perhaps you get the picture.
Betting favorites do not always get you to the winner’s circle. That’s why they call it gambling.
In Support of the Chalk-Eating Weasels
Let’s face it: It is really tough to win the Triple Crown. Winning the Kentucky Derby, coming back in just two weeks and winning the Preakness, and then going 1 1/2 miles three weeks later, a distance few if any horses will ever run again, is no easy task.
While we have seen some very talented horses come up short in the third jewel of the Triple Crown, some at minuscule odds, the hype for California Chrome seems to be hitting "Smarty" levels.
And deservedly so. The colt has outrun his modest pedigree, not to mention 18 foes in Louisville and another nine foes in Baltimore. The colt has already beaten six runners he faces on Saturday, and none of the new shooters appear to be in the same league.
The colt is coming up to the race as sharp as ever, and trainer Art Sherman and his son, assistant trainer Alan, are pleased with the colt’s progress leading up to the race.
Jockey Victor Espinoza has been down this road before, although it did not work out very well. Espinoza was aboard War Emblem, who lost all chance at Triple Crown glory in 2002 when he stumbled badly coming out of the gate in the Belmont Stakes.
Espinoza has ridden California Chrome flawlessly in his last six starts—all wins. The veteran jockey is riding in New York this week to get better acquainted with the large Belmont Park oval, which has taken some victims along the Triple Crown trail, most notably jockeys Stewart Elliot aboard Smarty Jones and Kent Desormeaux, who rode Real Quiet. Both were criticized for moving too soon.
While we have seen our Triple Crown dreams crushed a few too many times, this year feels a bit different. The connections are pushing all of the right buttons, the competition is not exactly imposing, and the odds that California Chrome makes history on Saturday are pretty darn good.
Follow Michael Dempsey on Twitter @turfnsport