Not since 1978 has the sport of kings seen a Triple Crown winner, when Affirmed defeated his rival Alydar by the slimmest of margins in the Belmont Stakes after winning both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. The Triple Crown is a grueling five-week schedule comprised of three races for three year old horses, something that is rarely tried nowadays at any other point in the racing calendar, aside from the cheap claiming horses who run more often than their stakes counterparts. This makes the Triple Crown trail one of the most unique facets of horse racing.
Since 1978, many horses have conquered the first two legs of the Triple Crown trail only to come up short in the Belmont. Who can forget the story of Smarty Jones? He was the darling of America during the 2004 Triple Crown, and the amount of disappointment in the crowd when he was passed by Birdstone midstretch was clearly visible. On the other end of the spectrum was Big Brown’s ride in 2008. He had also won the prior two legs, but his trainer, Rick Dutrow, had been caught many times before for using illegal drugs on his horses. He even had Big Brown on a steroid (which was legal at the time) that aided him in his races. Dutrow decided against using the steroid for the Belmont and Big Brown finished last after being pulled up by jockey Kent Desormeaux. Fast forward to 2014, and California Chrome’s story is very similar to that of Smarty Jones.
He is owned by DAP, the Dumb Ass Partners. The owners named their operation after they were called “dumbasses” for trying to get into the game of an owning a horse. The breeding on California Chrome would expect an observer to believe he was a cheap claimer as opposed to the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. His father cost the owners no more than a 2,500 stud fee to breed him to Chrome’s mother, who was purchased for 8,000. Up until this moment, Chrome has defied all odds. His trainer is 77-year-old Art Sherman, and his jockey is Victor Espinoza, who was also aboard War Emblem in 2002 when his quest for the Triple Crown was foiled in the Belmont. They form an unlikely team, but that is why Chrome’s story has been able to draw so many people in. Their owners are just like most working Americans, a group of lucky individuals who struck gold on a horse who should not be nearly as good as he is, but the fact remains that he is.
Chrome has the rare ability to show speed while having enough in reserve toward the end of the race to hold off the closers. With this being said, he has enjoyed picture perfect trips in both of his prior races, sitting 3rd off a group of dueling leaders. Once the horses in front of him retreated, Chrome was able to get first run on his competition and they have not been able to catch him. As it sets up on Saturday, Chrome does not seem to have a whole lot of speed surrounding him. He drew post #2, while possible other speeds #10 General A Rod and #11 Tonalist drew the far outside posts, and their jockeys will have to use their horses a bit more than Espinoza if they want to gain early position on him. With this being said, I truly see Espinoza going straight to the lead from post #2 and trying to take the field wire to wire, much like Stewart Elliott did in 2004 with Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones was hounded routinely around the track by a few horses who had never shown as much speed as they did in that Belmont Stakes, which led many to believe that they were on a suicide mission to not win, but to have Smarty Jones lose.
I believe something similar could unfold on Saturday. General A Rod did not have the greatest of breaks in the Preakness and had previously shown speed in both the Gulfstream Derby and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park over the winter. His jockey, female Rosie Napravnik, could send to the lead and press California Chrome the entire race, which could help setup closers such as Wicked Strong. I will sentimentally be rooting for California Chrome, but I will probably play a few exacta boxes and trifecta boxes with Chrome, Wicked Strong, and Samraat. Wicked Strong had an absolutely brutal trip in the Derby, drawing post 20 and steadied repeatedly throughout that race. Samraat was near the lead at the top of the stretch and held on for 5th that day. Both horses skipped the Preakness and are fresh off a five week layoff to take their shot against the champ.
I do not really see anyone else in the field with much of a shot. Ride on Curlin has lost twice to California Chrome now, and although he made a decent run in the Preakness, he was not making up much ground late, which leads me to believe the 1 ½ distance will not help him. Commanding Curve, 2nd in the Derby, is a deep, deep closer, and these types usually do not fare very well in the Belmont. Finally, Tonalist, 8-1 third choice on the ML, is coming off a win on a sloppy racetrack at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan stakes. These horses usually get overbet in the Belmont, and I do not see that being any different this year. I would look elsewhere.