If it feels like we’ve been down this road before, it’s because we have.
Since I started going to the Belmont Stakes in 1999, I have witnessed five horses try and fail to win the Triple Crown. A sixth, I’ll Have Another, was scratched the day before the race. And there were another sixth who tried before I started going, so you can’t pin the blame solely on me for the drought.
As we approach this year’s revival, we are closing in on what could be the biggest Belmont Stakes ever. After the mania that accompanied Smarty Jones in 2004, I didn’t think anything could top that.
The forecast is calling for 80-degree temperatures and bright sunshine. The head of NYRA has hinted that they may have to cap the attendance if too many people show up. The undercard has been boosted by the creation of a Breeders Cup-like day of major races, including the Met Mile, which is one of the most important races for older horses and features last year’s Belmont winner Palace Malice.
It’s all preamble to California Chrome. Can he do it? There has been only one time since 1999 – the aforementioned Smarty Jones – that I truly believed the Triple Crown would happen. Obviously, it didn’t.
Again, those feelings are taking over the horse racing world because California Chrome appears to be the real deal. So can he win the Belmont Stakes? Here’s why he should – and why he has a better chance than most recent Derby/Preakness winners.
1) The Kentucky Derby was easy
If you watch a replay of this year’s Kentucky Derby, you’ll see California Chrome ran hard for about 1/8th of a mile. It was really an astounding performance of ease. There have been other horses that won the Derby more impressively, think Barbaro in 2006 or Big Brown in 2008, but none in recent memory – if ever – won the race as easily.
At the top of the stretch, jockey Victor Espinoza drops the reins and Chrome puts them away in a heartbeat. It was such a destruction that Chrome was eased before the finish line – almost unheard of for the Derby.
Following the race, many handicappers – who still did not believe in California Chrome – pointed to the pedestrian time as an indication the race wasn’t that impressive. Others, including myself, used the truest handicapping tool of them all – the eyes – to see that it was that impressive.
When Chrome dusted them off in the Preakness in a time that matched recent superstars Curlin and Big Brown, those time concerns from the Derby had faded.
But more importantly, many observers commented how comfortable Chrome looked after his Derby win. The race took little, if anything, out of him. When you’re trying to squeeze three top performances out of a horse in five weeks, any morsel of energy saved could be crucial. By all accounts, Chrome is a very, very healthy horse.
2) He had a tremendous work on Saturday
Leading up to the 2003 Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide had one of the worst works ever, running off way too fast and telling the world he would be rank in the race. Indeed, Funny Cide was uncontrollable down the long Belmont backstretch and faded to third.
Leading up to this year’s Belmont that is most certainly not the case. California Chrome put on a display that had hardened racetrack veterans effusively praising the horse.
California Chrome had one of the best works I've seen in a very long time, including sensational gallop-outThe horse appears fit and ready. A good work doesn’t guarantee a good performance on race day – but it’s a lot better than a bad work.
— Steve Haskin (@SteveHaskin) May 31, 2014
3) The horse has been trained “East Coast” style
From this article in the Daily Racing Form about Chrome’s exercise rider Willie Delgado
The colt was already racing fit, so Delgado commenced galloping him “East Coast style” to prepare California Chrome for training over the surfaces at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park.
“The West Coast tracks have a lot less cushion,” Delgado said. “Out there they gallop stronger and breeze faster to get them fit, where on the East Coast the tracks are deeper. You don’t have to do much to get them fit. Think of it like the sand on the beach. You can go five miles on the packed sand and be fine, but go two miles on the deeper sand and you’ll be huffing and puffing. And if you try to go as fast on the deep part as you do on the hard, you’ll pull a hamstring.”
One of the big knocks on California horses and why many have not been able to parlay that success in other parts of the country are track conditions. If you’ve ever watched a race at Santa Anita, you’ll know it’s a fast track that favors speed.
That was a knock on Chrome going into the Derby. As we have seen since, the horse has not been trained like a typical California speed horse and does 2-mile gallops almost every morning. It calls to mind another recent Belmont winner who galloped in the morning for miles and miles…
4) He has the perfect running style for the Belmont Stakes
Afleet Alex produced the most electrifying horse racing moment I’ve ever seen in my life. Watch at the top of the stretch:
“He ran by Giacomo like he was standing still!” bellowed Tom Durkin and I still get goose bumps.
You know what that raced looked like? California Chrome putting them away at the top of the stretch in Churchill Downs. It is how you win the Belmont Stakes.
Despite the myth that closers succeed at a mile-and-a-half, that has not been the case at all in recent years if ever – the last three Triple Crown winners were all leading the race heading into the far turn. Chrome has the running style where he can be in position at the top of the stretch to unleash his move and win the race.
5) Victor Espinoza is familiar, if not fond, of Belmont Park
There is so much that can go wrong at the Belmont Stakes. Victor Espinoza knows this – his Triple Crown try with War Emblem ended in a heartbeat when the horse stumbled out of the gate.
Much has been made of his record at Belmont, a pitiful 2-for-67 at the track. However, those two wins came in Grade I races. And, as Victor said, he’s never ridden California Chrome at Belmont.
It is also a good thing that Victor is familiar with the track. When people revisit Smarty Jones, they immediately think of journeyman jockey Stewart Elliot, unfamiliar with Big Sandy, moving way too soon. It happens to experienced jockeys too, like Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet in 1998.
Espinoza has been exquisite so far with California Chrome, particularly in the Preakness when a premature move by Social Inclusion could have spelled doom. He knows the horse. He knows the track.
As Jerry Bailey once said about riding the incomparable Cigar – “If this horse loses, it’s probably my fault.”
6) California Chrome has shown he can relax
This may be the most important reason why he can win. Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were not able. Neither could War Emblem due to stumbling. The horse that wins the Belmont Stakes is the one who gets into a nice, comfortable, cruising stride on the never-ending backstretch.
In each of his wins this year, that is how you define Chrome. Espinoza has parceled out early speed to get a good position, Chrome strolls along the backside and then puts them away coming out of the final turn. It’s the blueprint to winning the Belmont Stakes.
7) He is clearly the best horse in the field
The horse that wins the Derby and the Preakness is not always clear best in the Belmont. Bet Twice in 1987. Easy Goer in 1989. Victory Gallop in 1998. Empire Maker in 2003. Those are a small sampling of Triple Crown spoilers that were at least the equal of the horse going for history.
That is not the case going into this year’s race. If California Chrome runs to his potential, he wins the race. It’s that simple. It doesn’t mean that he will win the Belmont Stakes – it means that he should.
There has been a lot of talk in horse racing circles about whether a Triple Crown will boost interest in the sport or create new fans. The old “horse racing is dead” myth pops up again. It is tantamount to missing the forest for the trees.
It doesn’t matter. Win or lose, the eyes of the sports world on Saturday afternoon will be pointed at a horse track. NBC is estimating 17 million people will watch – they moved Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final to take advantage of it.
If Chrome wins, the possibilities are endless – imagine a Breeders Cup Classic with a Triple Crown winner?
Regardless, history is on the line Saturday. We could see something that an entire generation has never seen. That is so rare in sports. What else hasn’t happened in 36 years?
I’ll be at Belmont Park Saturday. I hope to see history made.Follow me on Twitter