"The People's Horse." If you watch any of NBC's coverage of the 146th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, you'll hear this term enough to make you want to kick a stall door. And with all due respect to CALIFORNIA CHROME's connections, "The People's Horse" is the horse that Dwayne Johnson rides on, not the one that will be running in Elmont, NY for all the glory. But I digress..
By now, you know the made-for-Hollywood story that is CALIFORNIA CHROME...a couple working class dudes spend a modest sum to breed a horse that is now on the precipice of racing immortality. Let's overlook for a minute that it probably cost somewhere around $75,000 to get this horse to the Kentucky Derby, because it doesn't really fit with the narrative. Rather, let's appreciate this horse and the accompanying pageantry as an unlikely feel-good story for thoroughbred racing at a time when it needed just that. An estimated 120,000 people will cram into Belmont Park on Saturday (myself included) for their chance to bear witness to the first Triple Crown winner since AFFIRMED in 1978. Millions more will tune into NBC to hear the legendary Tom Durkin call his last ever Triple Crown race. All eyes will be fixed on the Chestnut Colt with the big white blaze and the #2 saddlecloths with "DAP" stitched on the hood. The roar of the crowd will be deafening as the horses load right in front of the grandstand. The bell rings. The gates fly open.... READ MORE....
The horses and jockeys will jockey for position. Arms and legs and hoofs and heads and hearts will sync up as the field assumes their places. They'll be back in the same spot in about 150 seconds. Does he have enough left after 3 races in 5 weeks? Can he get the distance? Does he have the heart?
Yes, yes, and yes. By 7:00p.m. ET Saturday, CALIFORNIA CHROME will be the 12th thoroughbred in history to win the Triple Crown. And when he does, it won't be because that's what the tracks, racing websites, breeding farms, and casual racing fans want to happen. It won't be because he's facing a "mediocre" field of rivals (he's not). It won't be because he is "America's Horse." It will be because he is the most talented horse in the race and he is operating at the top of his game.
As I see it, the main impediments to CC are the extremely talented COMMANDING CURVE and RIDE ON CURLIN. In the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (respectively), these two late runners were closing in on the eventual victor, so common logic would dictate that if each had just a lliiitttle more track to work with, they would have earned the win honors. However, it's a bit more complex than that. In Lexington, 38-1 shot COMMANDING CURVE came out of the clouds to finish second by a diminishing 1 3/4 lengths. However, Victor Espinoza had the winner on cruise control at that point, primping his mane for the win photo. Two weeks later in Baltimore RIDE ON CURLIN got within 1 1/2 lengths of CC, who was more all-out in his effort in the Triple Crown's shortest leg. Indeed, if THAT race had been the 1 1/2 miles that these guys will run tomorrow, the exacta would have probably come in the other way around. So, why am I so confident in CC's chances to complete the trifecta? Two main reasons:
First, despite the marathon distance, the Belmont Stakes is not nearly as favorable to closers as most people believe. The sheer size of the sweeping turns and massive homestretch make timing a closing kick extremely difficult. One second too soon and your horse is empty with 200 yards to go. One second too late and you're getting into stride as the winners are crossing the finish line. The timing must be perfect. Moreover, the deep, sandy footing of the Belmont oval is far more difficult to close into compared to strips with harder, more densely-packed surfaces. It should come as no surprise that, since 1952, 92% of Belmont Stakes winners have been in either 1st or 2nd at the top of the stretch.
Secondly, as I've alluded to previously, CALIFORNIA CHROME can comfortably cruise at a snappy pace. This is crucial because a racehorse can run 6 furlongs in 1:13 while being pressed and be dead tired, or run the same 6 furlongs in 1:10 loose on the lead and not break a sweat. For a better idea of how this plays out in real time, take a moment to check out SECRETARIAT's 1973 Belmont Stakes victory over SHAM (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfCMtaNiMDM). *I've watched that 100 times and it's still absolutely incredible*
Now, I want to be clear that in no way am I comparing CALIFORNIA CHROME to SECRETARIAT. But as you can see in the replay, the two horses are locked in a speed duel, with SHAM in an ideal pressing position (just off the flank) but maxed out in his effort. SECRETARIAT, a special talent if there ever was one, is calm and relaxed under the patient watch of jockey Ron Turcotte. This demeanor is part of what allowed him to run at a pace of the fastest sprint horses in the world for a full 12 furlongs. And as it relates to this year's "Test of Champions," I believe that this same dynamic will be the deciding factor.
So, I'm picking a 3/5 shot to win a race. Wonderful...now what? My recommendation here will be to suck it up, swallow your pride and lay the (nearly prohibitive) odds. But, let's be smart about it, shall we? When you're finishing your 5th Belmont Breeze and that little voice in your head is telling you to empty the account on the #2 to win, don't listen (everyone else has that voice too, right?). In fact, aside from your commemorative $2 win ticket, I'd avoid the win pool with CC entirely. As with the Preakness, I'm listing my exacta/trifecta ideas here, but I believe the play is to use CALIFORNIA CHROME in Daily Doubles and Pick 3s. You'll get much better value there for the simple reason that less people will be playing him that way. In addition, it's prudent to work out a contingency scenario, should our guy get into trouble at the start. In this scenario, the two closers mentioned above factor much more favorably into the equation, as do TONALIST and WICKED STRONG. Think of it as two separate races and plan accordingly (or don't, whatever). If all else fails, ask your 2 year-old daughter who's going to win. Mine says she likes #10 (GENERAL A ROD) because "10 is purple", so there's that.
It's supposed to be a picture-perfect day here in New York tomorrow so get together with some family and friends, fire up the BBQ, pop open a few adult beverages, and grab your seat for a chance to witness racing history. As always, a special shout out to Biz and the rest of the railbirds up at the Downs. Hope you all have a great weekend. We'll do it all over again next May....
Advice from our resident Horseman:
1) CALIFORNIA CHROME 2
2) RIDE ON CURLIN 5
WILL BE BOXING IN AN
3) COMMANDING CURVE 4 EXACTA/TRIFECTA
LONG SHOT – COMMISSIONER 8
(IMPROVING PETER PAN RUNNER UP
APPEARS TO BE ROUNDING INTO FORM,
BULKS UP FOR ALL-STAR CONNECTIONS)
KEY FACTS & FIGURES
The Belmont Stakes winner is draped in a blanket of white carnations (also the official drink of the race until 1997, when it was changed to the Belmont Breeze)
The Belmont Stakes is often called the "Test of Champions" due to the power and stamina required to conquer the grueling distance, sweeping turns and deep, sandy track
Off a 2nd place finish in the Preakness, RIDE ON CURLIN (12-1) gets a switch to local expert jockey John Velazquez. Joel Rosario, who had the Preakness mount, switches to Peter Pan Stakes winner TONALIST (8-1)
SAMRAAT (20-1), WICKED STRONG (6-1), and TONALIST (8-1) have all won races at Belmont Park
Of the field of 11 horses, 9 were bred in Kentucky. One was bred in New York (SAMRAAT) and 1 in California (CALIFORNIA CHROME)
In the previous 145 runnings of the Belmont Stakes, the favorite has won 60 times (41%). However, this has not happened since 2005 (AFLEET ALEX). Since 1999 there have been five winners at odds of over 24-1 (LEMON DROP KID, SARAVA, BIRDSTONE, DA'TARA, RULER ON ICE)
If you had bet on EVERY starter in EVERY Belmont Stakes for the last 15 years you’d have just about doubled your money.
Geldings/Ridglings (COMMANDING CURVE) win about 2-3% of triple crown races
Since 2000, 12 of the last 14 Belmont Stakes winners had not run in the Preakness
The weather forecast for race time is 78 F with a 0% chance of rain
Remember, these are just our thoughts and are in no way an endorsement to wager on these horses (or to wager, period). Good luck and enjoy!