California Chrome and the Biggest Belmont Stakes Ever

Last Wednesday – some 72 hours before the Kentucky Derby – my Dad checked on his Belmont Stakes tickets.

We have been going to the Belmont Stakes annually since 1999 and we’ve had multiple ticket issues. My Dad wanted to make sure everything was in order before the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome belmont
He was that confident in California Chrome.

He relayed that story to me shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday as he excitedly called me. To have told me before would have been a jinx.

If you’re a horse racing fan, you become a talent scout because you want to find the next star before anyone else does. This is due to the tried and true mentality of Americans – you get to claim you were on the bandwagon first and you get to make money.

In 2004, I felt I discovered Smarty Jones because I saw his races in Arkansas and was on board months before Sports Illustrated covers and record TV ratings. I got 4-1 on him in the Derby and it felt like stealing money.

In 2014, my Dad has been telling me about California Chrome since February. About five minutes into UConn’s Final Four win over Florida, I got a text from Dad. Was it about Kevin Ollie? Nope, it was about California Chrome winning the Santa Anita Derby in a waltz.

My Dad doubled his money on California Chrome Saturday. He will never get those odds again. He doesn’t care. He is firm in his belief California Chrome cannot lose.

He is not alone – Chrome’s outspoken owner practically guaranteed a Triple Crown after the Derby to Bob Costas. The story, like the Smarty Jones story 10 years ago, is a fairy tale. The old trainer with his final shot at greatness. The “dumb asses” working guys who mortgaged their mortgages to buy a slow mare that gave birth to a Kentucky Derby winner.

It’s absurd. It’s magical. It’s going to be a ridiculous five weeks. But horse racing is dead, right?

The Belmont Stakes is the most fickle of all American sporting events. The Derby is always the Derby. The Preakness is always the Preakness, with the annual story of the Derby winner trying to go two-for-two.

If that one horse is successful, the Belmont becomes one of the biggest sporting events of the year. If that horse is not, the Belmont becomes merely a big day at the track. In 2004, 120,139 people and 21.7 million at home watched Smarty Jones. In 2013, after Orb failed to win the Preakness, only 47,562 people showed up and 7 million watched at home.

The New York Racing Association, understandably, felt it needed to do something to level out the unevenness. They wanted to guarantee 70,000 people in the stands each and every year instead of being beholden to the results in Baltimore.

During a momentous few days in February for the sport, NYRA announced that it was moving a plethora of stakes races to Belmont Stakes Day to create the second-richest day of horse racing in North America. They were creating, in essence, a summer version of the Breeders Cup.

June 7, 2014, will now feature a whopping six Grade I races. In addition the Belmont, the co-feature will be the Met Mile, one of the sport’s most revered races and up there with the Breeders’ Cup Classic in terms of importance. There will be Grade I races in the Phipps for older mares, the Acorn for three-year-old fillies and the Manhattan for the best turf males.

Belmont Park has hosted a similar day of big races in the fall, but against college football, before the Breeders Cup and lacking an attraction like the Belmont Stakes, the “Super Saturday” card always fell flat.

This past Saturday, two-time reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan ran right before the Kentucky Derby. It felt big. On Belmont Stakes Day, that will happen five different times before the main event.

There is a who’s who of horses being pointed to Belmont Stakes Day already. Last year’s Belmont winner, Palace Malice, should be in the Met Mile. The top two older mares in training – Beholder and 2013 Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Slymar – are expected to renew their rivalry in the Phipps.

The folks at NYRA were claiming in February that this would be the biggest Belmont Stakes Day ever. Even they could not have dreamed up what could happen in a month’s time.

If you’re a fan of horse racing, or great stories, or the good guys winning, or sports in general – root for California Chrome in the Preakness.

Then clear your schedule on June 7. 

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