The 2014 Belmont Stakes is California Chrome's show. The remaining 10 horses in the field have one task: ruin everything and send everyone home disappointed.
Few would dispute a California Chrome victory on Saturday being the best possible outcome for the sport. The colt is attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 in a sport that has become increasingly niche since Affirmed's triumph.
To have an ambassador for younger generations—especially one with California Chrome's stirring backstory—in theory should help boost the sport's long-term popularity. At the very least, it'd make a fun made-for-TV movie.
And yet, even at 3-5 odds, California Chrome is far from a lock to win at Belmont Park. The last of the trio of Triple Crown races, the Belmont is also the most unique. At 1 1/2 miles, the track is roughly a quarter mile longer than the Preakness and Kentucky Derby.
If you don't think that's long enough to make a difference, think back. Remember Ride On Curlin's late charge at Pimlico? Or Commanding Curve's ascent from the back of the pack at Churchill Downs? Add a quarter of a mile to either one of those races, and perhaps we're having an entirely different discussion.
There is a very good reason that only 11 of the 33 previous horses to win the first two legs have completed the trifecta.
Will California Chrome get it done? I have no idea; check back Saturday evening. But in the meantime, let's check in on the favorite and the most notable horses looking to dethrone him.
|1||Medal Count||Spendthrift Farm||Dale Romans||Robby Albarado||20-1|
|2||California Chrome||Perry Martin, Steve Coburn||Art Sherman||Victor Espinoza||3-5|
|3||Matterhorn||Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners||Todd Pletcher||Joe Bravo||30-1|
|4||Commanding Curve||West Point Thoroughbreds||Dallas Stewart||Shaun Bridgmohan||15-1|
|5||Ride On Curlin||Daniel J. Dougherty||Billy Gowan||John Velazquez||12-1|
|6||Matuszak||George J. Prussin||Bill Mott||Mike Smith||30-1|
|7||Samraat||My Meadowview Farms||Rick Violette||Jose Ortiz||20-1|
|8||Commissioner||WinStar Farm||Todd Pletcher||Javier Castellano||20-1|
|9||Wicked Strong||Centennial Farms||Jimmy Jerkens||Rajiv Maragh||6-1|
|10||General A Rod||Skychai Racing, Starlight Racing||Mike Maker||Rosie Napravnik||20-1|
|11||Tonalist||Robert S. Evans||Christophe Clement||Joel Rosario||8-1|
California Chrome (3-5)
We all know the deal here. Win, make history. Lose, well, still make history. California Chrome will either be the 12th Triple Crown winner ever or the 13th straight horse since Affirmed to win the first two legs, only to fail in the third.
Drawing the No. 2 post shifts the likelihood more toward the latter. The last time a horse won the Belmont from the second-inner post was Tabasco Cat two decades ago. Only three times since 1970 has the No. 2 come up a winner.
“It’s just another post position,” co-owner Steve Coburn told reporters. “You all get drawn a bad place sooner or later. You just have to make the best of it.”
Tasked with making the best of it is jockey Victor Espinoza, who has past experience coming up just short. In 2002, he rode War Emblem to wins in the Derby and Preakness before faltering to an eighth-place disappointment.
There is plenty of reason for optimism this time around. California Chrome held a five-length lead at the Kentucky Derby before Commanding Curve made the final result closer than reality. Ride On Curlin was the only horse within eight lengths of him at Pimlico. Prior to the Triple Crown season, California Chrome's four previous wins came by an average of more than six lengths.
In a relatively slow crop of three-year-olds this year, California Chrome is the outlier. I can only remember Big Brown engendering this much faith in my lifetime. The sport will hope that history does not repeat itself.
Wicked Strong (6-1)
Wicked Strong drew a fine post and was considered by many a Kentucky Derby favorite. He finished fourth in that race, well behind California Chrome, but having more than a month off between runs will do nothing but close that gap.
Since arriving in southeastern New York, Wicked Strong has done little to quell the hype. While never fully simulating race situations, he's looked excellent in pre-race runs and already seems to have a sound strategy in mind.
"We wanted to keep him on the training track to prevent him from going too fast," trainer Jimmy Jerkens told reporters. "We wanted to keep that two-turn kind of a mind frame going into the Belmont, try to increase our chances of him settling early in the race and saving something for the end."
Jerkens also boasts something of a home-track advantage. He's based in Belmont Park and has innate understanding of how the track works. While Jerkens has never trained a winner of the year's third Triple Crown contest, that gives Wicked Strong a boost some others won't have.
Of the possible threats to California Chrome, Wicked Strong is the biggest.
If recent history is any indication, Samraat came away the biggest winner at Wednesday's draw. Since 2007, the No. 7 post has resulted in three Belmont Stakes wins. The third spot is the only other post to have multiple wins in that time frame.
While that's obviously a limited sample, it helps to put the field in perspective. With 11 horses in the field, Samraat will neither be jammed to the inside post nor have to cut off the entire field to make his move. He'll be right in the middle of the pack from the outset, with only four other horses trying to cram in his space.
Finding the right strategy here will be key for Jose Ortiz. Samraat showed questionable stamina at the Kentucky Derby, where he faltered to a fifth-place finish down the stretch after being part of the lead pack. It's possible that Ortiz started his push a little early at Churchill Downs—or perhaps Samraat just doesn't quite have enough gas in the tank to compete with the California Chromes of the world.
The former is a better possibility than most think. Samraat won his first five career races and finished second to Wicked Strong at the Wood Memorial.
The horse also has his own ties to the New York area. He's owned by Len Riggio, an entrepreneur best known for being a large shareholder in Barnes & Noble stores. Born in the Bronx, Riggio has never had a horse compete at the Belmont but seems to be relishing in his opportunity to play the spoiler.
"I'm so happy this could happen at Belmont. This is our home. This is going to be great for the fans in New York, [rooting for] the horse that's stabled here," Riggio told Laura Albanese of Newsday.
Stamina is a real factor here, and it'll be interesting to see if Ortiz pushes Samraat to the lead early and then looks to stave off the charging competition late. At 20-1 odds, he's worth a roll of the dice.
For as much hype as Peter Pan Stakes winner Tonalist has received so far, it's surprising to see Commissioner move through so anonymously. It was Commissioner that finished in second place in one of the year's most high-profile second-tier races; the Peter Pan is quite often a showcase for Belmont challengers.
Commissioner's own history should provide some cause for caution. Sixth, third, sixth and second are his last four finishes. He hasn't won a race since January and has only two career triumphs in seven starts. It should be understood when a horse is 20-1 odds in an 11-horse field that there is a very good chance he will not win.
And yet, the surrounding pedigree makes him a tempting choice.
Todd Pletcher is still riding high off Palace Malice's win a year ago, and Commissioner is owned by the famed WinStar Farm. If there is any pairing that can get an inconsistent horse ready for the day of his life, it's Pletcher and WinStar.
Of the two 20-1 choices mentioned here, Samraat is the better choice. He has a longer history of sustained success, has already raced on the sport's biggest stage and is in a post position where he might be at an early advantage.
But if you're taking a chance, Pletcher's presence alone makes Commissioner a horse to watch. Throwing him in a trifecta for a place or show is far from the worst thing you could do.
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