California Chrome seeks to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown, marking the 13th chance since then to secure the highest accomplishment in horse racing. Trainer and jockey alike hope that 13 will prove lucky, and the odds actually favor that rare outcome.
An experienced combination of horse and jockey can make the crucial difference over the 1.5-mile track, and while the favorite offers an experienced tandem, one new entry to the Belmont sees an uncertain horse ridden by a jockey with a poor track record in big races there.
When: Saturday, June 7; post time at 6:52 p.m. ET
Where: Belmont Park in Elmont, New York
Watch: NBC or stream on NBC Sports Live Extra
|1||Medal Count||Dale Romans||Robby Albarado||20-1|
|2||California Chrome||Art Sherman||Victor Espinoza||3-5|
|3||Matterhorn||Todd Pletcher||Joe Bravo||30-1|
|4||Commanding Curve||Dallas Stewart||Shaun Bridgmohan||15-1|
|5||Ride On Curlin||Billy Gowan||John Velazquez||12-1|
|6||Matuszak||Bill Mott||Mike Smith||30-1|
|7||Samraat||Rick Violette||Jose Ortiz||20-1|
|8||Commissioner||Todd Pletcher||Javier Castellano||20-1|
|9||Wicked Strong||Jimmy Jerkins||Rajiv Maragh||6-1|
|10||General A Rod||Mike Maker||Rosie Napravnik||20-1|
|11||Tonalist||Christophe Clement||Joel Rosario||8-1|
(Odds taken from BelmontStakes.com on June 5 at 10 a.m. ET)
Victor Espinoza will ride atop California Chrome, and they drew the No. 2 post position, meaning they are not against the rail but could still get squeezed. However, nothing has been able to halt the tandem of Espinoza and Chrome so far, as they have galloped to six wins in six races together.
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman expressed confidence to the New York Daily News' Jerry Bossert about California Chrome's chances: "It’s amazing but I think he just keeps getting stronger. He keeps bouncing out of these races so fast it’s kind of scary, actually."
Through two legs of the Triple Crown, California Chrome has undeniably looked like the class of the field.
NBC racing analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey observed a unique relationship between horse and jockey, and specifically noted California Chrome's tendency to rock inside the starting gate. As he told Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal:
Even the Derby he was rocking all around. And I think Victor pretty much just lets him, instead of fighting him. He seems to have found a fine line, and it will start with the gate...When the gate opens, then he'll try to straighten him up, force his will on him to a certain extent, and the horse is good with it. Victor kind of stays out of his way, but then when he needs him to do something, he'll go from a passenger to a pilot.
As good a shot as California Chrome has been with Espinoza holding the reins, Matterhorn looks like the distant long shot in the cozy 11-horse field.
Though revered trainer Todd Pletcher has won twice at Belmont—Rags to Riches in 2007 and Palace Malice in 2013—Matterhorn will be ridden by Joe Bravo, an experienced jockey from New Jersey who has enjoyed most of his success at the less prestigious Monmouth Racetrack.
Bravo has not competed in the Belmont Stakes since an 11th-place finish in 1998 atop Basic Trainee. 1996 marked the only other time he has ridden in the third leg of the Triple Crown, a ninth-place finish with Contention.
According to Claire Novak of Bloodhorse.com, Aron Wellman from Eclipse Thoroughbreds admitted that the primary reason for entering Matterhorn in the race came from a belief that the 1.5 miles would be uniquely suited to him:
The distance is really the primary reason we're giving this horse a shot; there's so few opportunities to run a horse at a mile and a half and this looks to be a prime spot. Of course, it's a stellar lineup set to compete on Saturday and he has not shown as of yet that he's capable of making a major impression against that caliber, but we do believe the mile and a half distance is the ultimate equalizer.
Matterhorn finished fourth in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes behind winner Tonalist, so winning the Belmont would require a considerable surge from Bravo and the colt. Essentially, Matterhorn is a roll of the dice for Pletcher and Eclipse Thoroughbreds after Danza withdrew from the race.
Does Matterhorn have any chance to pull off the big upset?
The flagging sport of horse racing desperately needs the shot in the arm that a Triple Crown winner would provide, and California Chrome has 10 horses to beat to make that a reality. The unique relationship between horse and jockey looks probable to carry the horse to victory.
Longer distance in the Belmont is always a concern, but California Chrome's style involves hanging with the pack until the time for the late surge arrives. That strategy has served Espinoza well so far, and only two factors could play spoiler for the favorite.
First, post position could trouble California Chrome, as the No. 2 position has not produced a winner in two decades since Tabasco Cat added a Belmont Stakes victory to his win at the 1994 Preakness.
Second, while weather kept track conditions ideal for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the New York area has seen bands of heavy rain in the week leading up to the race. The weather forecast calls for thunderstorms on Monday, but everything looks clear for Saturday's race, per Weather.com.
As the stars align for California Chrome to make history, Espinoza looks poised to pilot him there.