One-and-a-half miles is all that separates California Chrome from history. The three-year-old colt will face the most daunting test of his career when he takes his post for the 2014 Belmont Stakes.
Obviously, by now, everyone knows what's on the line for the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He is one step away from winning the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Twelve horses since Affirmed have gotten two-thirds of the way there before faltering at Belmont Park.
As if that daunting history isn't enough of a hindrance to California Chrome's chances, he'll have to beat out a field loaded with worthy contenders, many of whom have had extra time to prepare.
Here are the 11 post positions for the Belmont Stakes:
|1||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||20-1|
|2||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||3-5|
|4||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||15-1|
|5||Ride On Curlin||John Velazquez||12-1|
|9||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||6-1|
|10||General a Rod||Rosie Napravnik||20-1|
While No. 2 isn't the most advantageous post position, 11 horses have won from there since 1905, per the Belmont Stakes on Twitter:
Since 1905, 11 winners of the #BelmontStakes have started from post 2, trailing only 1 (23), 3, (15), 5 (14), and 7 (13).— Belmont Stakes (@BelmontStakes) June 4, 2014
Starting out in the second post position won't be a huge issue for California Chrome, but it is yet another roadblock along his Triple Crown path.
Trainer Art Sherman, however, remains optimistic, per Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal:
I think going a mile and a half, it's a good post position. We can save some ground leaving there. I think it's going to be a jockey's race anyhow. It gives you a chance to see who's going to have the speed and where you're laying going into the first turn. With his tactical speed, I don't think post position was really an issue, as long as he breaks good.
That tactical speed will be the key. California Chrome is one of the fastest horses in the field, but Belmont isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. Nobody wins a prize for setting the quickest pace. Jockey Victor Espinoza will need to ensure that the horse has more than enough left in the tank coming around the final turn.
At both the Derby and the Preakness, California Chrome dazzled with his finishing kick. He distanced himself from the pack and eliminated any drama.
He might not be so lucky on Saturday, not least because he's facing off with a few horses capable of winning.
Looking at the bigger picture, below is a list of how many winners have started from each post position, according to the official Belmont Stakes website:
Medal Count and Samraat were arguably the biggest winners from the post draw. Although 15 winners have come from No. 3, Matterhorn is running at 30-1 odds, so he isn't much of a contender.
Both Medal Count and Samraat also followed what is rapidly becoming the best strategy by which to ensure Belmont success: skipping the Preakness.
According to Marty McGee of Daily Racing Form, seven of the last 14 Belmont Stakes winners lost the Kentucky Derby and then removed themselves from the Preakness Stakes.
"It’s got to be an advantage, maybe a slight one," said Tim Ice, who trained 2009 Belmont winner Summer Bird. "You’re not having to run three times in five weeks against the caliber of horses that make these races so tough. You’ve got time to let the horse catch back up and be at its peak for the next one."
Samraat and Medal Count have had that extra time to cool off from the Derby and then prepare for Belmont. Although neither had a great time at Churchill Downs, they're both more than talented enough to spring a surprise.
Ride On Curlin also benefited from the post draw, with a total of 15 winners throughout history coming from the No. 5 post position.
Although the colt didn't follow the path of least resistance, it paid off with a second-place finish at the Preakness Stakes.
Tom Pedulla of The New York Times wrote that Ride On Curlin doesn't have the look of a typical contender, which ended up making him less valued than he should be:
Ride On Curlin may not be quite as crooked as a question mark, but nothing about his conformation suggests that he should be able to close as much ground as he did in the Preakness. His feet point in and his knees are not anatomically straight. Those flaws led countless potential bidders to pass on him as a yearling in 2012 despite his intriguing pedigree as a son of Curlin, the horse of the year in 2007 and 2008.
The second-place finish at Pimlico is more than enough to make Ride On Curlin a threat to California Chrome, and he was only helped with his post position draw.