The morning-line odds for the 2014 Belmont Stakes surfaced during Wednesday's post position reveal. Where each of the 11 horses started from had an impact on the top favorites' chances, but California Chrome was certain to be the top entrant to beat no matter where he entered the Belmont Park gates.
Wicked Strong fell a bit short of his No. 2-favorite morning-line billing at the Kentucky Derby, placing fourth. Now he's listed at 6-1 for Saturday's race at Belmont Park. The James A. Jerkens-trained horse is tabbed as the top challenger to California Chrome's bid for the Triple Crown.
Gaining some late momentum ahead of The Test of the Champion is Tonalist, who will be mounted by star jockey Joel Rosario. At 8-1, he is projected to finish in the money and could offer California Chrome a terse test in Elmont, New York.
Here is a closer look at the top three favorites, along with the post positions and odds for the 146th annual Triple Crown finale.
|1||Medal Count||Robby 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|
California Chrome (3-5)
Victor Espinoza knows nothing but the winner's circle when getting the mount, and he hasn't had to press too much for California Chrome to finish first in all of his previous starts.
The jockey had a shot to complete the Triple Crown in the 2002 Belmont Stakes with War Emblem but only managed to finish eighth that day. Espinoza feels his fortunes will be different this time around, per USA Today's Gary Mihoces:
California Chrome is very talented. War Emblem, he was, too, but he was an attitude horse. He did not like being behind horses. He liked to go in the front ... and a mile a half is really, really tough for a horse that just wants to go in the front. He was not saving energy in the beginning. That's why it's different now. California Chrome is a different horse. He's really kind and mellow, and he just does whatever I tell him to do. ... I let him know that I'm the boss, and he has to listen to me in the race, and he does that.
California Chrome's last workout at Belmont Park before the race drew considerable buzz and left a strong impression on Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin:
California Chrome had one of the best works I've seen in a very long time, including sensational gallop-out— Steve Haskin (@SteveHaskin) May 31, 2014
There is undeniable chemistry between Espinoza and California Chrome. All the other Triple Crown competitors to date this season can attest to that. Trainer Art Sherman's impressive colt strolled to wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Neither of those races was particularly dominant, yet it is difficult to pull away from a Triple Crown field as it is. Espinoza has displayed courage in holding up under the immense weight of expectations that come with being heavily favored in capturing the previous two jewels of the Triple Crown.
Wicked Strong (6-1)
Winning the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes proved that Wicked Strong is as capable as any of at least being a serious contender in a Triple Crown race. Oddsmakers felt that way at Churchill Downs, too, but he failed to live up to the hype.
The Belmont Stakes offers a shot at redemption for Wicked Strong, who has all the tools to thrive on the lengthy dirt track that spans 1 1/2 miles. Rick Snider of the Washington Post Express feels the 6-1 odds make Wicked Strong a viable bettor's choice:
Belmont draw means nothing over 1 1/2 miles. Chrome drew 2, Wicked Strong 8. Like Strong getting 6-1.— Rick Snider (@Snide_Remarks) June 4, 2014
However, Jerkens did acknowledge he was a bit disappointed in drawing the No. 9 post, per KY Derby Contenders:
Wicked Strong trainer Jerkens says he would have preferred to be more inside than post 9.— KY Derby Contenders (@DerbyContenders) June 4, 2014
Wicked Strong doesn't boast as successful of a jockey in Rajiv Maragh as the other favorites, but Maragh has a great chance to win his maiden Triple Crown race. There is plenty of room to improve on what was a lackluster Kentucky Derby trip, and a smaller field lends to fewer traffic issues. Starting farther from the rail will prevent that potential pitfall to a degree, too.
It was also encouraging that Wicked Strong's best came later in the race in Louisville, and he has the advantage of having more rest than California Chrome. At a race in the Belmont Stakes where endurance is at a premium, this may give Wicked Strong enough of an edge to play Triple Crown spoiler.
Who is California Chrome's most dangerous challenger?
Dismissing Tonalist is unwise, if only because he has 2013 Kentucky Derby champion Joel Rosario in the irons. Rosario is as dangerous as any jockey in this field, and he was guiding Tonalist during this last month's win at the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes.
The race took place at Belmont Park, and the margin of victory was fourth lengths. It suggests that Tonalist has the explosiveness to get it done, especially since he suffered a setback in stumbling at the start.
Christophe Clement, the trainer for Tonalist, expressed his surprise at how swift his colt moved in racing to the landmark win.
"I was a little bit surprised with the amount of speed he showed in the Peter Pan," said Clement, per The Courier-Journal's Mike Kane. "Looking back at the replay, he broke slow. Then he was sent after that, which is probably why he showed so much speed."
Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form felt Tonalist flashed solid form in a Wednesday workout:
More of the same this a.m. from Tonalist, jogs a mile gallops a strong 1 3/8 with a sub :15 final furlong looking very relaxed— Mike Welsch (@DRFWelsch) June 4, 2014
Rosario just has to be patient and allow his capable horse to break at the proper time. The pace should be slower since it's such a long race, so that only plays into the naturally fast Tonalist's hands. As long as there's something left in the tank coming down the final stretch, Tonalist should push California Chrome and anyone else to win.
But California Chrome's odds are so much shorter than that of his two closest prospective adversaries for a reason. He is the class of this Belmont Stakes field. Based on the success he and Espinoza have had together, there's no reason they can't team to triumph and take home the Triple Crown.
Starting slow is a characteristic California Chrome and Tonalist share, but they have plenty of time to make up ground at Belmont Park should that be the situation on Saturday. Starting so far outside will likely be too much to overcome, though, and California Chrome should edge Tonalist in a narrow finish. Just as it happened at Churchill Downs, Wicked Strong will unfortunately disappoint his connections in Elmont and finish outside the top three.