NEW YORK — If there’s a lesson to be learned from recent Triple Crown history, it’s that Saturday’s Belmont Stakes probably won’t be an easy, breezy run in the park for California Chrome, the heavy favorite.
There’s a reason only 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in the same year. There’s a reason why 12 horses since 1978 have captured the first two races, then failed to add the final leg to join racing royalty.
There are lots of reasons, actually. But one is that there are always a number of other very fast horses ready to run their very best against the one entry many race fans simply can’t see losing. That’s the position in which California Chrome finds himself this year. It’s the same spot others have been in before, and they were beaten.
Can it happen again?
“Well, I hope so — that’s what we’re here for,” said Billy Gowan, the trainer for Ride On Curlin, who finished second to California Chrome in the Preakness after placing seventh in the Kentucky Derby, and will start race day with 12-1 odds.
Since this isn’t a one-horse race — in fact, should California Chrome emerge from this pack of 11 starters, it will be the largest Belmont field ever handled by a Triple Crown winner — who might be the strongest candidates to prevent Chrome from winning? The 10 other horses all have credentials: They’ve combined for 21 wins, yet none of them has ever finished ahead of California Chrome in any race.
The most intriguing challenger might be Tonalist, one of four horses in the Belmont who didn’t run in either the Derby or Preakness. (Commissioner, Matterhorn, and Matuszak are the others, and are all considered long shots.) Tonalist has just four career starts, but won two of them, including the Peter Pan Stakes by 4 lengths on May 10, one week after the Derby, at Belmont Park.
Since the last Triple Crown winner (Affirmed in 1978), four of the 12 horses who won the Derby and Preakness went on to lose the Belmont to a horse who hadn’t raced in either of the first two legs: Coastal won in 1979 (denying Spectacular Bid), Summing in 1981 (Pleasant Colony), Sarava in 2002 (War Emblem), and Da’Tara in 2008 (Big Brown). Tonalist is looking to become the latest Triple Crown crasher, and was given morning-line odds of 8-1.
“I think he’s the main threat,” said Bob Neumeier, a familiar radio and television voice from Boston who will once again be part of NBC’s broadcast team calling the race. “I’d always be wary of the new face, and Tonalist is the new face.
“You go back in history, you have Birdstone [in 2004], Sarava, Da’Tara, these are horses that on paper you would say would have no chance, but they win. You shake your head afterwards and you say, ‘How is that possible?’
“It’s just racing, and it’s just the Belmont.”
Despite being 37-1, Commanding Curve took a surprising second in the Derby, showing the kind of closing speed (he was 18th a half-mile in) that could mean trouble for California Chrome in the longer Belmont.
Ride On Curlin will have his third jockey in three races; Calvin Borel was up in the Derby, when Curlin took seventh, and Joel Rosario rode him in the Preakness. But Rosario opted for Tonalist, so John Velazquez gets the call Saturday. Not a bad backup: Velazquez already has two wins in the Belmont, on Rags to Riches (2007) and Union Rags (2012).
Velazquez should have a strong horse under him this year.
“Ride On Curlin ran great in the Preakness, and I love the work he gave [Gowan] the other day,” said Jimmy Jerkens, the trainer for Wicked Strong. “For a horse that ran in both races, if I was in the same boat as him, that’s the exact kind of work I would have given him. I think he’s coming into the race in great shape.”
Wicked Strong appears to be in top shape as well, healed up after a scratch-and-cut-filled run in the Derby. He also possesses a strong kick, so if the early pace is quick and those who set it tire a bit, a closer like him could easily be there at the end to grab victory.
Whoever ends up winning might have to chase down California Chrome, because he likes being near the lead from the start, and starting from the No. 2 post position, he should be able to get it with a clean break.
The horse who breaks fastest at the Belmont often can’t maintain the lead because of the rugged distance. There are exceptions (Secretariat comes to mind), and Chrome has looked better in each race of his win streak, which stands at six.
The Belmont strategy for Team Chrome might be to get the colt in front as quickly as possible, and see who can keep up, assuming anyone can. That hasn’t happened since Nov. 1, California Chrome’s last loss, when he hopped as the starting gate opened, started slowly, and couldn’t recover, placing sixth at the Golden State Juvenile Stakes.
“He’s an amazing animal, he really is,” said Steve Coburn, one of California Chrome’s owners. “I wish every horse owner out there could have a horse like this, because he’s one in a million.
“This horse could have been born to anybody. He was born to us, and we’re very blessed with that. He’s America’s horse. We’ve got the entire country, if not the entire world, behind us.
“We just hope and pray that everybody gets a clean break, every horse has a safe trip, and then let the chips fall where they may. We hope to see everybody in the winner’s circle.”
Anyone familiar with Belmont’s history knows that’s hardly a guarantee.
“There have been bigger cinches that have went down before,” said Neumeier. “We thought Smarty Jones [in 2004] was a cinch, and Spectacular Bid was a cinch. Not in a horse race.
“He could break poorly, he could get shuffled back, he could get slammed off. It went well for him in the Derby, it went well for him in the Preakness, but racing never goes as you think it would. There’s a lot of random luck involved.”