California Chrome is within reach of winning the 2014 Triple Crown, but a number of factors will make Saturday's Belmont Stakes his toughest challenge to date.
This is the last opportunity for other viable contenders to steal the spotlight from a horse who could become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. Trainer Art Sherman remains buoyant regarding California Chrome, even with a tough starting post and a tough field of 11 to navigate.
"I thought he looked better now than he did after the Preakness," said Sherman, per Mike Farrell of The Boston Globe. "I couldn’t believe how much weight he put on. Going on the Triple Crown trail, it’s kind of rough. He’s an amazing horse."
Several entrants that ran in the Kentucky Derby opted not to run in the Preakness Stakes in an effort to be better rested and get the best of California Chrome at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. One of those includes Wicked Strong, a 6-1 morning-line favorite who is distinguished as the top challenger to California Chrome, just as he was at Churchill Downs.
A recent Belmont Park victor in Tonalist just triumphed at the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes on May 10. Having that success to draw on—not to mention perhaps the best jockey among the top horses in Joel Rosario—will help his chances to get to the winner's circle.
Both previous runners-up in the season's Triple Crown races in Commanding Curve (Kentucky Derby) and Ride On Curlin (Preakness) are also in the field. Ride On Curlin gave California Chrome a run at Pimlico Race Course, losing by only 1 1/2 lengths.
Starting in the No. 2 post at Belmont Park has been a rather significant disadvantage, too, per ESPN Stats & Info:
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
How will California Chrome fare in the Belmont Stakes?
In addition to going against the grain of history to achieve the ultimate accomplishment in horse racing, California Chrome has another decades-long precedent to reverse based on his post position alone.
The sheer distance of the Belmont Stakes is daunting. At 1 1/2 miles, it is the longest trek for Triple Crown-caliber horses. It's always somewhat of a wild card to figure out how even the best horses will manage such an extensive test of stamina. However, there is the argument that the longer track should only go further in distinguishing the best horses.
Should that be the case, it would appear to work in California Chrome's favor. But the other 10 horses are dealing with the same circumstances, and none of them have run in a race with so much on the line and with so much ground to cover.
What works in California Chrome's favor is that he put in a sensational final workout, suggesting he can indeed find a way to win the Belmont Stakes. The Daily Racing Form's David Grening and Jerry Bossert of the New York Daily News were two experts whose attention was had by California Chrome's excellent work:
Hard to go against California Chrome after watching that work.— David Grening (@DRFGrening) May 31, 2014
But getting it done in workouts and doing so when it matters most are two very different scenarios. California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza have been up to the task thus far, but the pressure is on more than ever now. The entire industry, save for their opponents' connections, are hoping they pull off the Triple Crown.
Between the formidable field, a difficult starting post, epoch-making distance and even more spotlighted scrutiny, this Triple Crown campaign is far from over. California Chrome has by far the shortest odds to win The Test of the Champion. That doesn't mean he will get it done—and it may not be aspects of the Belmont Stakes in his control that leads to his Triple Crown ambitions being extinguished.
A slip-up out of the starting gates as horses vie for position ahead of the first turn—especially close to the rail—could slow California Chrome to the point of pushing him back too far to start. The second post is dangerous territory, and the prohibitive favorite's biggest competition is starting well away from the rail.
There's no question California Chrome is the best horse in the Belmont Stakes. What's unclear is whether enough breaks will fall in his favor Saturday to prove it.