The Belmont Stakes received an immediate boost when California Chrome ensured the Triple Crown would be on the line with a win in the Preakness Stakes. It was the talented colt's second straight convincing victory after breezing past the field in the Kentucky Derby.
California Chrome has now won six straight races, but it's the one on Saturday that will ultimately decide his place in horse racing history. The Belmont is the toughest test of them all given the extended length (12 furlongs) and challenging schedule (three races in five weeks).
If the Art Sherman trainee overcomes those obstacles to win the Triple Crown, he will join one of the most select groups in sports. If he doesn't, he'll become just another statistic. So let's examine his chances and the field trying to end the dream run.
2014 Belmont Stakes Entries
|1||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale L. 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|
The 2014 Belmont field can be broken down into three categories: favorite, secondary contenders and long shots.
California Chrome is the overwhelming favorite and rightfully so. Not only did he win both the Derby and Preakness, but he hasn't lost since last November. And he's been downright dominant in most of the races since that point.
The biggest question is how he'll hold up during that long Belmont home stretch while racing for the third time in just over a month. It's a test no horse has been able to pass since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, all the way back in 1978.
Chris Murray of USA Today passed along comments from Art Sherman, who seems to be simply enjoying the ride:
At the beginning of the year, if you told me this would happen I would've said no. But everything's fallen in order. We got lucky and the horse has this great six-race winning streak. It's been awesome. Not many people have gotten a horse like this.
If California Chrome is able to avoid any fatigue issues and runs his best race, the Triple Crown drought will end on Saturday.
The group of secondary contenders is quite large. Wicked Strong, Tonalist, Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Samraat and Commissioner all belong in the category. None of them are on the same level as California Chrome but are capable of pulling off the upset if he's not at his best.
Which horse will win the 2014 Belmont?
Although the morning-line odds suggest differently, Wicked Strong has the feel of the horse most capable of extending the Triple Crown streak at least one more year.
He won the Wood Memorial by edging the gamely duo of Samraat and Social Inclusion before finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby. That result is better than it sounds, though.
Wicked Strong was forced to start in the extreme outside post in the first leg. It forced him to spend most of the race well off the lead pace, and there simply wasn't enough time, space or energy left for him to chase down a horse the caliber of California Chrome.
With a most reasonable starting spot and the rest advantage over the favorite, he should be a major factor on Saturday.
Then there's Commanding Curve. He was off the radar for most of the Derby talk before earning a surprising second-place finish. After skipping the Preakness, he's been training well leading up to the Belmont, as noted by Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form:
Commanding Curve certainly looks fit and ready for Belmont gallops impressive 2 3/8 miles the last 1/2 mile stronger than the first.— Mike Welsch (@DRFWelsch) May 30, 2014
That leaves Medal Count, Matterhorn, Matuszak and General a Rod as the long shots.
They are all horses that would need everything to go perfectly in order to win. They need a quick break, clean trip and a little help in terms of mundane performances from California Chrome and Co. in order to find the winner's circle.
In the end, it all comes back to California Chrome. While it's impossible to know exactly how he's going to respond to the long Belmont journey, the fact he still had more to give in both the Derby and the Preakness bodes well for his chances.
The Belmont as a whole is always way more exciting when history is on the line. No horse has been able to complete the task in nearly four decades. On Saturday, the world of horse racing finds out if California Chrome is the horse to end the drought.