Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Alex Evers
The chance for the long awaited thrill has arrived once again. This time, however, is different. Although we like to
compare our current athletes to the legendary faces and names of the past, I
can’t help but to view this champion individually. California Chrome has just scored the first two legs of
the 2014 Triple Crown. Along with that comes the name of a horse we all know so
well. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 thirty five years have passed
The drought has been plagued with near misses. Since Affirmed,
twelve different horses, that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, came
up short, or did not enter the Belmont Stakes.
However, maybe the Triple Crown should sometimes be
looked at as more difficult rather than impossible. The Belmont didn’t get coined the “Test
of a Champion” without the proper merits. The distance itself should prove that
this epic challenge is by far one of the most unnerving events in sports. Just
imagine how long these next three weeks are really going to be for Team DAP.
Enough with the task at hand, can California Chrome win
the 2014 Belmont Stakes? In case I haven’t led you on enough, let me be clear; it’s
So then, when it comes to racing and not the connections, what separates California Chrome from the last
12 horses that failed to win on Big Sandy? For some there may be very few as the amount of similarities are vast. But, for me, there are just enough to look at his chances much differently than I did
with some of the others.
The first thing that jumps out at everyone is how easily he has been winning. There have been zero thrills in the final furlong in each
of the first two legs. No comparisons of Smarty Jones chasing down the front
running Lion Heart in the mud in 2004. No rubber match as highly anticipated as
Funny Cide vs. Empire Maker in 2003. No gutsy moves from the middle back to win
the Preakness Stakes like Pleasant Colony in 1981.
Finally, we won’t see any round three matchups in 2014
like we saw with some of the most classic bouts in Triple Crown history;
Alysheba vs. Bet Twice, Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer, Real Quiet vs. Victory
Gallop, Charismatic vs. Menifee.
In all four of these Belmont Stakes the Kentucky Derby
and Preakness Stakes runner-up would get one more shot at their rival. In all
but the last, the runner-up became the Belmont Stakes champ.
In a similar situation Silver Charm would meet Free
House yet again. The two knew each other all too well. They faced off
practically every step of the way en route from California to Kentucky and it
was only fitting that they battled it out down the stretch in each of the first
two legs before meeting one more time in the Belmont Stakes.
Neither of them would prevail as it was Touch Gold’s
day but that year was another example of how much excitement there is when two
powerful horses meet for the third time and one last time for all the marbles.
Yet in 2014, it’s only the California Chrome show. Some
may say that this year lacks the talent. You could also get into this argument
from a number of different angles; he can’t carry the distance, the pace was
too slow, the best horses skipped the Preakness.
Sure, these are points that can be made but
unfortunately they don’t answer this one regarding why he is winning so easily. Is California Chrome just too good?
Ride on Curlin made an extremely bold move from well off the pace in the Preakness Stakes to find the position he wanted; striking
distance in the final furlong. But as flawless as his move was, weaving through the field
to get there, it was all for not, as he never had a chance at passing the Chrome.
In both races, all I’ve seen is California Chrome own
the field with such ease. And that is so much different than these other years. The competition may look lackluster but it’s too
hard to tell because when one athlete is so superior it makes it tough to
positively judge his opposition.
What’s also striking to almost everyone is how smooth
Victor Espinoza is in the saddle. When you look back and watch the 2002
Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes there are some very similar things that you
might find in contrast to how he rides California Chrome.
Both horses were forwardly placed as they liked to be
in or on the lead through the first turn and backstretch. The most recognizable
resemblance is that both horses had the lead at the top of the stretch.
But, if you look closely, the biggest difference is how
busy Espinoza was with War Emblem. The amount of activity with the whip and how
hard he had to hustle War Emblem home is vastly different to how he’s piloting California
Chrome in the final furlong. In both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes
the race was already in hand at this stage of the race so all Espinoza was
really doing here was checking his rear view mirrors.
Although, California Chrome is responsible for the
majority of the work I will never underestimate the brilliance of a rider. When it comes to Victor Espinoza there is something else that is different
about him when compared to the other jockeys that rode their Triple Crown
hopefuls into the Belmont Stakes.
There is one exception but when it comes to Big Brown I
have a very hard time actually considering him a legitimate Triple Crown
contender. There were too many things wrong with his connections and how he got
to where he was leading up to the Belmont Stakes. So, unfortunately for Kent
Desormeaux, he will not be compared to Victor Espinoza here. Plus Big Brown got hurt in the race which resulted in a DNF.
In all 11 of the other Triple Crown bids since 1978 each
jockey had never been in this position before. Now that’s not to say that the
riders were at fault but it is something that has been talked about. In 1979, Spectacular
Bid’s attempt to become the third consecutive Triple Crown winner and fourth in
seven years was overcome by a couple of variables. First is the infamous safety
pin but there also is the claim that jockey Ronnie Franklin was too aggressive too
Parallel were the assertions that Chris Antley veered
away from the winning strategy by moving Charismatic too far to the front early
in the race in 1999.
But, jockeys have to make quick decisions and their horses
may have prevented them from choosing any other option. So, we will never know
exactly how each race would have ended had the strategy been executed.
However, regardless of how good any of them were, how many would have been in a better position had they been there before? And that’s
where California Chrome has such a unique difference compared the other
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners since Affirmed.
The Belmont Stakes is the most difficult for a number
of reasons but the distance and the size of the track are the most legitimate.
The horse has to be ready for it but the jockey has to be in control at all
times and make all the right moves. This is not to take anything away from the
great jockey’s that missed but there's just something about this rider and his three-year-old.
Experience could be the key and Victor Espinoza has it.
On another front there’s still time to make things
right. The horse racing industry needs this, the fans want this even more. With
the whole #nasalgate scandal impeding the quality of the story I think
California Chrome will be in the starting gate at Belmont Park on June 7. I don’t
care who wins the petty and embarrassing argument, I only care that we move
ahead. And if we do, California Chrome has such a chance at truly becoming
America’s Horse and the next Triple Crown winner.