California Chrome and his jockey Victor Espinoza are riding a six-race winning streak ahead of Saturday's 2014 Belmont Stakes. They may be favored with 3-5 morning-line odds to win at Belmont Park, but they're also fighting against a decades-long precedent that's seen a number of Triple Crown hopefuls fall short.
Saturday will prove to be a different story, as Espinoza will utilize his uncanny rapport with California Chrome to claim victory in The Test of the Champion in Elmont, New York.
USA Today highlights the tough task California Chrome and Espinoza are undertaking:
Espinoza will be pining to finish off the final leg of the Triple Crown. He finished a disappointing eighth in the 2002 Belmont Stakes aboard War Emblem after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes that year.
That previous golden opportunity was spoiled when War Emblem stumbled out of the gates, which is a pitfall Espinoza must avoid this time around. California Chrome hasn't been a fast starter in his decorated career, and drawing the No. 2 post position will provide a challenging traffic situation before the first turn.
ESPN Stats & Info noted how arduous the 1.5-mile, dirt-track jaunt can be and how vital it is for California Chrome to be within striking distance as the last quarter mile unfolds:
This will require Espinoza to be patient and not press the issue. He has the best horse in the field by a considerable margin. In his quest to redeem his last blown chance at the Triple Crown, he must not push too hard. Otherwise, it will doom California Chrome's odds to reach the winner's circle.
The following testimony from assistant California Chrome trainer Alan Sherman suggests that Espinoza won't be too pushy.
"Victor doesn't get in the horse's way," said Sherman, per ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill. "He doesn't try and make the horse do something he doesn't want to do."
Espinoza hasn't had much reason to push California Chrome. In cruising to victory at Churchill Downs, Espinoza pulled up a bit on his sensational colt. When a faster pace was required at the Preakness, it didn't take an extraordinary increase in effort for California Chrome to triumph in The Run for the Black-Eyed Susans.
Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe can foresee what an ecstatic announcer may say when California Chrome crosses the finish first:
Tonalist should provide a challenge thanks to his speed, which will help him overcome starting at the post farthest from the rail. Kentucky Derby and Preakness runners-up Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin are in the 11-horse field, too. However, none of them have enough firepower to hang with California Chrome.
None of them even have Grade 1 victories to their resumes, and Wood Memorial Stakes winner Wicked Strong didn't live up to the hype in placing fourth at the Kentucky Derby. There are formidable contenders in this Triple Crown field, but California Chrome is in a class of his own. The spoiler hopefuls will leave Elmont disappointed, because in light of California Chrome's seemingly effortless gliding to victory in the previous two marquee races, his best may be yet to come. Espinoza will have no reason to hold anything back down the final stretch.
Winning the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 will give horse racing a needed jolt. All the connections involved that made a modest $10,000 investment in California Chrome will hit it big as so few have in celebrating the 12th Triple Crown champion and first in 36 years.
California Chrome is both an underdog story and a dominant force of nature and can be universally embraced because of that unique combination. All Espinoza has to do is get out of his own way, weather the early storm and perhaps even let California Chrome loose in the last few furlongs.
The result figures to be epic, and a benchmark achievement in horse racing that won't be forgotten.
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