A date with destiny in New York awaits Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner California Chrome. Will his bid for the Triple Crown reach fruition? Can he finally be the horse to accomplish what 12 prior horses beginning in 1979 failed to do after winning the first two legs? Note: 11 of those horses were defeated and a 12th was scratched. So, will the 13th attempt turn out to be lucky? Does our three-and-a-half decade long wait finally end? Those questions get answered on Saturday in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes run at a grueling marathon distance of 1 1/2-miles over "Big Sandy" a.k.a., Belmont Park.
The 3-year old California-bred colt is riding a six race unbeaten streak, including five-for-five in 2014. Considering the manner of his victories in those races, the son of Lucky Pulpit surprisingly hasn't scared away challengers for the 146th Belmont Stakes. Ten challengers await him as he goes for the first sweep since 1978. Of the 10 opponents, six have already gone down to defeat by California Chrome during his quest for history, while four newcomers try their luck at preventing him from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. Is there no respect for Chrome's chances?
No, that isn't the case at all, he's highly respected. It's basically because trainers and owners figure the odds are on their side due to the severe absence of a Triple Crown winner, and therefore, why not take a shot. California Chrome is by far the most talented and much superior 3-year old equine in racing. He is also one of the best horses in North America, but he isn't a great horse. Not yet anyway. That adjective is bestowed upon Triple Crown Champions. Just one win away from immortality, will California Chrome meet the challenge and become a champion in the race called the "Test of the Champion?" Like the previous questions, the racing world finds out Saturday.
Let's take a closer look at the field.
1-MEDAL COUNT/Robby Albarado/Dale Romans--Couldn't transfer that dynamic Keeneland synthetic form he displayed over to the Churchill Downs dirt when finishing eighth in the Kentucky Derby. It could have been due to the 3 races he ran in a span of 29-days, it could have been the not so good of a trip he encountered in Louisville, or maybe he just isn't comfortable racing on a conventional dirt surface. Despite his debut win on dirt at Ellis Park last September, the colt has now failed miserably in three additional attempts over the footing at three major tracks. One has to seriously question if this colt can handle the Belmont dirt surface. The plan for this horse following the Derby was to return him to the races on turf here at Belmont Park in July. But low and behold, a 5F bullet work over the Churchill DIRT on May 24th changed everything and now he shows up a month early with intentions of being a party pooper. He's one of a handful of horses trying to get it done from off-the-pace. Distance for this horse isn't a question, the surface is. If he doesn't take kindly to "Big Sandy," there's no way on earth he'll handle the big horse from California.
2-CALIFORNIA CHROME/Victor Espinoza/Art Sherman--The star of the show coming into the race, and let's hope that status remains after the race is completed. The year 1978 was the last time America boasted a Triple Crown Champion (AFFIRMED) and Jimmy Carter (remember him) was President of the United States. Since then, there have been 12 attempts for the Triple Crown to be won, and 3 of those tries I felt quite confident it would be achieved: 1979 (Spectacular Bid), 2004 (Smarty Jones) and 2008 (Big Brown). I guess it's three strikes and you're out. But this is another year with another chance and my confidence once again is sky high. Let's hope the final result is different. Chrome has twice proven in the Triple Crown races, and convincingly I may add, to be far better than the fields assembled against him, including more than half of his Belmont rivals. The others in here are new shooters, all with question marks of some sort. But hold on, this is Belmont Park, a unique track 1 1/2 miles in circumference with its own set of idiosyncrasies. Jockeys that ride here on a regular basis know when and at what point on the oval to make their bids. Riders unfamiliar with Belmont's vastness mistakenly misjudge where they are on the track and move prematurely. Although Victor Espinoza is a very capable rider, he doesn't ride here every day. However, Espinoza's agent is well aware of the situation and therefore he smartly secured a few mounts for the 42-year old jockey for Thursday and Friday, as well as on Saturday's undercard in order for Espinoza to have a few go-arounds to get his bearings and find his markers prior to riding for history aboard California Chrome. Now back to the horse. Not only has Chrome looked spectacular during the Derby preps and through the first two T.C races, he doesn't even looked fatigued for a colt participating in his 7th race since December and making his 3rd start in 5 weeks. This colt is ultra durable. An asset many horses don't own. Hasn't given off any signs of weakening. On the contrary, he keeps getting stronger. I like the way he quickly secures position out of the gate, and then goes on cruise control before bounding away. He's been doing it that way for six straight races (all wins). Can he do it one more time? Is there any fuel left in the gas tank? Well, seeing is believing, and from what I've seen on the track watching his races thus far, and from what he showed in his final preparation, I'll say yes to both questions. But this contest is certainly no "gimme." The test of 12 furlongs is both an unusual and demanding distance for a racehorse. The toughest assignment to accomplish. It's his race to lose, but if he wins, he's truly a great horse that really earned it.
3-MATTERHORN/Joe Bravo/Todd Pletcher--Is the most expensive purchase price runner in the race. $625k was shelled out for him last year at the 2-year old sales, so there must have been high hopes for this Tapit colt. Things started off promising when he broke his maiden in his debut going one mile at Aqueduct in mid-November. Setbacks then kept him sidelined until late February when he returned to be a well beaten 10th in an entry level allowance race at Gulfstream. Excusable for sure, as he was returning off a 3-month layoff and lost interest soon after being bumped at the start. The one-two finishers from that event, Constitution and Tonalist, went on to win a graded stakes each. But he lost again at the same level next out before being thrust into Grade 2 competition which he obviously wasn't ready for. Sports a nice pedigree for distance, but based on his overall record from only 4 lifetime starts, asking him to conquer this mountain with a breakout performance is requiring far too much at this time.
4-COMMANDING CURVE/Shaun Bridgmohan/Dallas Stewart--With just a lone maiden win to his credit, he outran his nearly 38-1 odds in Louisville with a shocking second-place finish in the Derby. Factor in how slow the pace unfolded in that race, and it was a hell of an impressive showing, coming from second last and chasing down all but the winner. In retrospect, the effort could have been foreseeable based on his third place finish in the Louisiana Derby one race prior. I believe his Kentucky Derby run was an honest showing rather than a fluke, so don't disregard it. Comes from the clouds with his deep closing style, so he's always dependent on pace help. He didn't get it in Louisville and almost pulled it off. Now must tackle an additional 2 furlongs in the Belmont where the pace projects to be slow, or possibly average at best. Never want to take a horse out of his comfort zone as it pertains to running style, but in order be a dangerous late threat again, jockey Bridgmohan may be forced to change tactics slightly and not place his mount so far back in the pack, while keeping reserve left for a late run. He bypassed the Preakness to point for this spot and has worked well in the 5-week span. Won't be a ridiculous price this time around, but should not be overlooked again either.
5-RIDE ON CURLIN/John Velazquez/William Gowan--Rebounded from his Derby debacle with a superb 2nd place effort in the Preakness. It was the type of run I expected from this colt in Louisville when I backed him in the wagering, but he received an absolutely horrible ride that day from Borel. Jockey Rosario rode him correctly in Baltimore, but now the colt gets another rider change (his fifth in as many races) to Johnny V., as Rosario stays aboard Tonalist. No issues with the jockey switch. This son of Curlin made Chrome work down the lane for the victory in the Preakness, and it was the most competition the California horse has received during his six race winning streak. Highly adaptable running style, so depending how the race unfolds, Velazquez can place him where he feels the horse needs to be (including the lead) and know that R.O.C. will be ready when asked to fire. Given his pedigree, which I strongly believe is the best in the field, distance is no concern He has looked very good training in the mornings over the surface. Has loads of talent, but always falls short of getting the mission completed in graded company. He's been 2nd or 3rd in five of those contests Sire just missed winning the 2007 Belmont, so wouldn't it be something special if the son makes good in this very same event and notches his first graded stakes.
6-MATUSZAK/Mike Smith/Bill Mott--The only time this son of Bernardini visited the winner's circle was when he scored in his debut going two-turns last fall at Churchill. Since then, he's been blanked in seven subsequent starts, all of them also two-turn efforts. Finished behind Kid Cruz in the Private Terms and Tesio Stakes in his last two starts. That winner didn't do anything earth shattering to boost the form of either race when he was well beaten in top company last out in the Preakness, and wasn't entered for a Belmont try. In two prior runs in graded company, Matuszak has been unplaced. Since his last outing, lightly-race colt has worked impressively during the interim preparing for this test. Although his pedigree projects endurance for the mile-and-a-half, he's up against it class wise having been ambitiously spotted by a trainer who is a Hall-of-Famer. Dangerous trainer/jockey team managed to pull off the upset in this race a few years back with Drosslemeyer. Not imagining that happening again with this horse.
7-SAMRAAT/Jose Ortiz/Richard Violette--Graduated first time out over this track last summer, albeit at six-furlongs. That victory set off a five race winning streak that eventually was halted in the Wood Memorial. Ran a solid race in the Derby where he was very prominent for much of the journey. He lodged a bid at the eventual winner with a quarter-mile remaining before tiring slightly at the end to finish 5th. Has freshness angle going for him after sitting out the second leg. Is talented, super consistent, always tries hard and gets to compete on his home track. Definitely has solid foundation under him after registering back-to-back 1-mile works. With the absence of the speedy Social Inclusion, Samraat could realistically become the pace-setter if jockey Ortiz chooses to do so. It wouldn't be an unfamiliar role or position for this runner as he won his first three races completely on the front-end, including the Damon Runyan going around two turns. He gets his name from an old Indian title that translates as "Emperor", but I just don't foresee this NY-bred colt being the emperor in here after navigating 12 furlongs.
8-COMMISSIONER/Javier Castellano/Todd Pletcher--Talk about a horse that is bred for the distance!! His sire A.P. Indy, his grandsire Seattle Slew and his damsire Touch Gold, all won this classic race. Started off on the Derby trail early in the year, but when it became evident he wouldn't be ready, the Belmont became the goal. This colt has plenty of foundation coming in. Has seven career races, all at one-mile or longer, including two wins at 9 furlongs from five starts. Has made four consecutive starts in graded stakes and the company lines show he faced some good horses without winning. The best he could do in those races was a runner-up placing last time out in the Peter Pan Stakes. Appears very prepared for the challenge of this race, more so than some of his opponents, but a win by this late closing runner would still be surprising.
9-WICKED STRONG/Rajiv Maragh/James Jerkens--Wood Memorial winner got marooned on the far outside post in Louisville, stumbled leaving the gate and didn't have a smooth trip while trying to get untracked. The slow pace hindered his chances, but he still produced a nice rally from 14th early on to finish 4th. A remarkable showing. Closer faces the prospect of another slow pace in here, so he'll need help up front. If that happens, watch out. The colt is fresh having skipped the Preakness, undeniably fit as indicated by his a.m. works and a powerful pedigree to get the distance. Poses the biggest threat in my opinion to derail the Chrome Express.
10-GENERAL A ROD/Rosie Napravnik/Mike Maker--Had been very effective running near the lead in races leading up to the Derby, but in Louisville he was taken way back off the pace to rate and the experiment didn't go well as he ultimately finished 11th. It marked the first time he finished out of the top three. Two weeks later at the Preakness, he was more forwardly placed from the outset, racing in fourth position. Was enjoying a smooth trip as he held that position going down the backstretch and past the half-mile pole. Then as the field traveled around the far turn he was shuffled back a few placing's when his progress was impeded by a tiring rival. Could have thrown in the towel after that misfortune, but the General regrouped and came running back again very determined at the end of the race to round out the superfecta. He just missed catching the show spot by a head. Receives a rider change to Miss Rosie in the irons, but despite her capable abilities, along with the fact that this horse classes up nicely with a 2nd place finish in the Fountain Of Youth and 3rd place effort in the Florida Derby, this well-bred colt will still be a longshot.
11-TONALIST/Joel Rosario/Christophe Clement--First thing I notice about this young Tapit colt with 4 starts is that Rosario gives up the mount on Ride On Curlin to stay aboard this runner, so this might be a runner with mega potential we're looking at. Was a very impressive winner of the Peter Pan Stakes (the prep for this race) over a sloppy Belmont surface. Earned a lifetime best speed figure for that effort, but it may be inflated because of the off track. Due to that score he looks to be entering into the Belmont as the "wise guy" horse. Wouldn't blink an eye to see this guy go off as 2nd choice in the wagering. Hasn't been subjected to the severity of the Triple Crown, so he comes in very fresh and very fit. There's no telling how good this colt is or could become. No concerns with his ability to get the distance as indicated by his pedigree, and looks to be peaking at the right time. Although his gigantic speed figure earned in the Peter Pan matches up with the best numbers put up by California Chrome, it's so out of whack with his three previous figs, that it's difficult to accept the number at face value. But it could also truly indicate positive and rapid improvement, which is not unusual for 3-year olds, and if that's the case, he would have to be afforded a legitimate shot at winning.
Analysis: Knowing that history could be made on June 7th, and that I'll be at Belmont Park to possibly witness it, I've been trembling with an abundant amount of excitement and nervousness the last three weeks. I'm cheering feverishly for California Chrome to win this event, so I cannot conscientiously bring myself to bet against him no matter how enticing the odds inflate on the other contenders. That doesn't cut it for me. However, I will buy a souvenir win ticket just for keeps. Keying the Art Sherman runner on top of several of the others in superfectas is certainly an option, but I'm not sure I'll even bother to do that. One thing I will do though, as the crowds make their wagers, is pace back and forth in the grandstand and hope that the racing Gods (yes, they really do exist) answer my prayers and get Chrome to the finish line first. Good luck and enjoy the race everyone!!