Belmont Stakes 2014 Field: Handicapping the Horses at Belmont Park

Jessica Paquette@jmpaquetteFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2014

Belmont Stakes 2014 Field: Handicapping the Horses at Belmont Park

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    The Belmont Stakes is the ultimate test in horse racing. Run on a mile-and-a-half-long track, the long stretch has played host to many triumphant victories and crushing defeats over the years. On Saturday, California Chrome will get one or the other.

    The ghosts of racing's past haunt Belmont Park. From Secretariat's tremendous 31-length score to capture the Triple Crown in 1973 to the wave of silence that fell across the entire grandstand when Birdstone denied Smarty Jones his chance at immortality in 2004, there are few tracks as rich in history as Belmont Park.

    Handicapping the 2014 Belmont Stakes, especially with a Triple Crown on the line, can be a tricky proposition. It is easy to get swayed by sentiment in the hopes that after 36 years the Triple Crown drought will finally be over.

    With a field of 11highlighted, of course, by California Chromethis year's iteration of the Belmont Stakes promises to be one for the ages. Here is a look at the contenders, the pretenders and the dark horses that could surprise the favorite.

The Pretenders

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    Matterhorn: 30-1

    With only one victory to his credit, Matterhorn is still eligible for much softer spots. He has given zero indication at this point that he is a top-class talent and appears to be in the deep end of the pool here.

    There is little upside to this colt. Trainer Todd Pletcher is one of the best in the business, and maybe he sees something in him to think he belongs here. But based on his body of work, Matterhorn would be better served in an allowance race with lesser stakes.


    Medal Count: 20-1

    The one thing that Medal Count has going for him is that he is bred to handle the mile-and-a-half distance. However, he has shown that he would fare much better over that distance on synthetic surfaces or turf rather than dirt.

    To be fair, he did break his maiden on dirt, which occurred last year against suspect competition. He will face much more serious rivals in the Belmont. At best, he stands a chance at getting a piece of the bottom part of a superfecta wager.


    Commissioner: 20-1

    With his pedigree and top-class connections, Commissioner has had every opportunity to prove that he is something other than a well-bred underachiever. With each race, he has proven more and more that he is simply not as good as the top-tier horses.

    His sire (A.P. Indy) won the Belmont Stakes in 1992, and his maternal grandsire (Touch Gold) did as well in 1997. He was bred to excel at a mile-and-a-half, but he needs to prove that he is capable of running against elite competition.


    General a Rod: 20-1

    General a Rod was compromised by terrible trips in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Even without those problems, though, would he have been much of a factor? 

    It is debatable whether or not he is a true distance sort of horse, and at this point he could be the type of horse that just finds trouble and excuses in a race.  

The Dark Horses

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    Samraat: 20-1

    Samraat has proven that, like California Chrome, he is a talented horse from humble beginnings with a big heart. Though this New York-bred colt may have distance limitations, he has shown himself to be the type of fighter that does not back down, and that alone makes him a dark horse with a big chance.

    In addition to his tenacity, he is proven at Belmont Park. His connections opted to skip the Preakness and focus on the Belmont Stakes in their home state. With Social Inclusion sitting this race out, the pace cools down a little bit, and Samraat is quick enough to be a factor early and game enough to hang tough at the end.


    Matuszak: 30-1

    Trainer Bill Mott is not the type of trainer who runs a horse with no shot to win. He won the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer at double-digit odds, and he finished second with Vision and Verse at more than 50-1 odds in 1999.

    Matuszak, having not raced since April, will be the freshest of the horses in the starting gate. He did put in two sensational works at Belmont in May before dialing it back a notch, presumably by design, over the last two weeks. Getting two-time Belmont Stakes-winning jockey Mike Smith in the irons doesn't hurt, either.

The Contenders

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    Commanding Curve: 15-1

    There are quite a few things to like about Commanding Curve. After a good runner-up effort in the Run for the Roses, he took a break to focus on the Belmont Stakes. After a slow start to his career, he may just be hitting his best stride now and could be a horse that is improving with each race.

    Or, and this may be more likely, his second-place finish in the Derby was a fluke and the true Commanding Curve is more the one who finished an average third in the Louisiana Derby.


    Ride On Curlin: 12-1

    Ride On Curlin turned in a dynamite effort in the Preakness Stakes and was able to redeem himself after a terrible trip in the Kentucky Derby. There is no doubt this colt is talented. As my colleague Brendan O'Meara writes, "When Ride On Curlin gets a clean run at the front, he's as dangerous as they come."

    Nevertheless, some major questions remain. The first one concerns how far he can effectively go. While he shares the same sire (Curlin) with 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice, his female family is more sprint-oriented.

    The other, and maybe more important, question is: How much did that big effort at Pimlico take out of him? Competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown is a lot to ask.


    Wicked Strong: 6-1

    Wicked Strong may be the most likely candidate to spoil California Chrome's bid at the Triple Crown. After a troubled trip resulted in a respectable fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, the decision was made to skip the Preakness in lieu of the Belmont, a race that should play to his strengths.

    With his sharp closing kick, the long stretch at Belmont Park should give him plenty of time to make up ground and try to catch California Chrome. In addition, he has enough stamina in his pedigree to handle the added distance.


    Tonalist: 8-1

    Tonalist is the great unknown in the Belmont Stakes. While his win in the Peter Pan Stakes was impressive, it came over an off track that he seemed to excel over. That victory also came against dubious competition.

    At this point, there is no telling how good he may or may not be. On Saturday, he will get a stiff class test and have to prove that he can run with the big boys. 

The Favorite

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    California Chrome: 3-5

    Installed as the heavy favorite with a 3-5 morning line, California Chrome towers over this field, both in terms of odds and body of work. 

    Jockey Victor Espinoza has been in this position before. In 2002, he was aboard War Emblem for his bid at the Triple Crown. Those dreams were immediately dashed when the dark bay colt stumbled out of the gate; at that point, the headstrong colt had no chance.

    California Chrome, on the other hand, has proven to be versatile and very tactical, as Espinoza explained to Gary Mihoces of USA Today: 

    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.

    Nothing in horse racing is a sure thing, but California Chrome is both the logical and sentimental favorite as he attempts to make history and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.


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    One way or another, history will be made on Saturday. California Chrome will go down as one of racing's Triple Crown winners or some other three-year-old will take the spotlight as the horse that dethroned the king.

    Ultimately, my top selection goes to California Chrome. While some strange things can happen in the Belmont Stakes, he just seems too good to not get the job done. While very few things in horse racing are certain, one thing is for sure: It is going to be one exciting horse race. 


    Win: California Chrome

    Place: Wicked Strong

    Show: Samraat

    Long shot: Matuszak