Can California Chrome win today’s Belmont Stakes and become racing’s first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978?
After picking him in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, I didn’t waste a lot of time worrying over the top pick for today’s mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. Those who question his pedigree to win at this distance sound just the same as those who questioned it heading into the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, a race he absolutely dominated.
Since the Preakness, we’ve been able to watch his daily gallops and his strong, lone workout at Belmont Park, and he seems to be thriving as he pursues his seventh consecutive victory. Is this horse special enough to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner, the first in 36 years and only the fourth since Citation won in 1948?
Most horses would be exhausted from winning the Derby and the Preakness just two weeks later. Not Chrome. Not only has he put on weight since the Preakness, his girth has increased by more than an inch since the Derby.
What distinguishes Chrome from other Triple Crown hopefuls who won the Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont is Chrome’s tactical speed and handiness. Detractors say he’s benefitted from great trips, but he wasn’t given those trips; he made those trips himself because of his tactical speed and adaptability.
I love that jockey Victor Espinoza chose to ride at Belmont Park this week instead of returning to his home in California. That gives him plenty of time to acclimate to the largest track in North America. He’s also had plenty of time to watch videos of previous Belmont Stakes. I hope he paid due attention to Real Quiet in 1998 and Smarty Jones in 2004. Both of their jockeys moved too soon to make the lead, and it may be the reason they were passed late and denied the Triple Crown.
Chrome’s inside draw today — the two post — will allow him to get great early position. There is very little early speed in this race, and it is quite possible that Espinoza will put Chrome on the lead, which is how he won the Grade II San Felipe Stakes by 7 1⁄4 lengths — wire-to-wire. If another horse wants the lead today, Espinoza will be happy to oblige. Chrome won the Santa Anita and Kentucky derbies and the Preakness by having a target to run at and pass.
An way you slice it, Chrome is the best horse in today’s Belmont Stakes.
His Biggest Threats
There are four legitimate threats and two others who have a chance at upsetting Chrome. After much juggling, we have come up with these horses in order of preference:
Commanding Curve: It’s ironic that trainer Dallas Stewart’s Golden Soul, who finished second in last year’s Kentucky Derby and hasn’t come close to that effort since, is also on today’s Belmont card. Stewart’s Commanding Curve seems better than his stablemate and better bred than him to relish the mile-and-a-half. He closed from 18th to finish second in this year’s Kentucky Derby at 37-1, and has trained extremely well since. At 15-1 on the morning line, he offers betting value today.
Ride On Curlin: His second in the Preakness was a huge effort. His length-and-a-half loss to Chrome was the closest any other horse has gotten to Chrome during his six-race win streak. Ride On Curlin has finished in the money in nine of his 11 starts, but just two were victories and they came in a maiden and a bottom-level allowance. He was beaten by Chrome, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong and Samraat in the Kentucky Derby, but he had a troubled trip. It’s hard to believe Ride On Curlin will go off at odds near his 12-1 morning line, but if he does, he has betting value.
Wicked Strong: Hampered by the 19 post and the victim of considerable traffic trouble, Wicked Strong did well to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby, 5 3⁄4 lengths behind Chrome. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens skipped the Preakness to focus on the Belmont Stakes, and Wicked Strong has worked smartly. The fact that he was beaten by Tonalist when he finished fourth in an allowance race three starts back is a bit vexing.
Tonalist: I originally expected to pick him second or third today, but a tough post — the 11 in a field of 11 — and a less than stellar workout forced me to reconsider. His impressive victory in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes on a sloppy track in his last race was just his fourth lifetime start. Trying to win the mile-and-a-half Belmont from a difficult post in his fifth career start is asking a lot, but he seems to be the best bred in this field to make this distance.
Samraat: Like Wicked Strong, Samraat skipped the Preakness after finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby, just a nose behind Wicked Strong. After winning his first five starts, Samraat ran second to Wicked Strong in the Grade I Wood Memorial and then fifth in the Run for the Roses when he was within a head of Chrome coming out of the final turn, and could not keep up with him.
General a Rod: He was shuffled back from fourth to sixth in the Preakness before rallying to finish fourth, just a head off Social Inclusion. Before that, he was a troubled 11th in the Kentucky Derby. Rosie Napravnik replaces Javier Castellano off an impressive bullet work.
The rest of the field
Commissioner: After being soundly beaten by General a Rod and Ride On Curlin in separate races, he finished a distant second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan. He’s by a Belmont Stakes winner, A.P. Indy, out of a dam, Flaming Heart, whose sire, Touch Gold, also won the Belmont.
Matuszak: He rallied to finish third and second in a pair of ungraded stakes behind Kid Cruz in his last two starts. Kid Cruz was nowhere in the Preakness.
Medal Count: He was eighth in the Kentucky Derby. He had two bullet works for this and has the rail today. Good luck.
Matterhorn: He’ll be making his fifth career start off a maiden win, a 10th and a third in a pair of allowance races and a fourth in the Peter Pan. Take a trip to the Alps if he wins this.