California Chrome’s Opportunity Arrives

Photo by BILL WINE | Contributing Photographer California Chrome started pulling away down the home stretch to win the Kentucky Derby.

Photo by BILL WINE | Contributing Photographer
California Chrome started pulling away down the home stretch to win the Kentucky Derby.

Just short of five weeks since a dominant victory in the Kentucky Derby became the signature moment in the racing career of California Chrome, the opportunity to strengthen his legacy is now, depending on when you read this, just days or hours away.

On Saturday, the California-bred colt will run against a field of talented horses in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of the Triple Crown. The sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and the Belmont has not been achieved since 1978, when Affirmed became the third 3-year-old Thoroughbred in six years to win the three races and only the 11th Triple Crown winner since the first – 1919 Kentucky Derby winner Sir Barton – was retroactively recognized as the first.

Any thoughts that the Triple Crown had become too easy a task following the sweeps by the legendary Secretariat (1973), unbeaten Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed should have been quickly trashed after Spectacular Bid, one of the great American racehorses of the 20th century, finished a fading third in the Belmont in 1979.

Following the stunning 1953 Kentucky Derby loss by Native Dancer, the only setback in the great gray’s 22 career races, trainer Bill Winfrey said “They shouldn’t have a race that Native Dancer can’t win.”

Given the rest of Spectacular Bid’s career, it might be said there shouldn’t be a Triple Crown that the Bid can’t sweep. But after Spectacular Bid moved to the lead in the Belmont and the nation anticipated an unprecedented and nearly unthinkable third consecutive Triple Crown, he was passed in the long Belmont Park by both the victorious Coastal and the late-running Golden Act.

Spectacular Bid would lose only one more race in his career: a runner-up finish in a head-to-head battle with Affirmed with the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. He would end his career with 10 consecutive victories. The last was a “walkover” in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont.

A walkover is a one-horse race. The Bid was so dominant that no other horse dared run against him. That victory improved his record to 26-2-1 in 30 races and earnings of $2.8 million

But he came up short in his bid for the Triple Crown.

Spectacular Bid’s story is recalled here not to suggest that California Chrome will suffer a similar fate in Belmont Park’s “The Test of the Champion.” It is, however, a reminder that the Belmont and its distance – the latter now a rarity in American racing – present special challenges to horse and rider.

And, while California Chrome is clearly the best of his generation of 3-year-olds to this point, trainer Art Sherman’s storybook colt faces challenges from several talented colts on Saturday and, like every day in his sport, there are no guarantees on Belmont Day.

A racing adage holds that “There is a reason we run ‘em.” Those words are never truer than when they are applied to the races of the Triple Crown.

Still, California Chrome appears to have the qualities a good horse needs to accomplish the task he undertakes on Saturday. The Belmont distance – the length of the Churchill Downs homestretch longer than the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter – has traditionally best suited horses with early speed that enables them to stalk or set the pace. In that aspect, Saturday’s race suits California Chrome perfectly.

His previous Triple Crown wins have been easy, though he had to work a bit harder in the Preakness than he did at Churchill Downs two weeks earlier. And his appearances on the track since the Preakness have strongly indicated that he is a happy and energetic horse.

One aspect of his preparation that I like is the foundation of experience and fitness he brings into the final jewel of the Triple Crown. He made his career debut on April 26 of last year and has not had a break since. Sherman’s throwback training style will bring a confident, battle-toughened and well-prepared horse to the starting gate on Saturday.

It has appeared that California Chrome won the Derby and Preakness with ample gas left in the tank. During his seven-race winning streak, the Derby winner has not faced a significant challenge from any horse.  Conventional wisdom suggests he should have something in reserve should that challenge finally arrive in the Belmont homestretch on Saturday.

But should the day belong to another horse, which is best equipped to be this year’s Coastal?

The lightly-raced Tonalist is a relatively late-developing colt whose chance to run in the Kentucky Derby ended when an infection knocked him out of the Wood Memorial. He returned to racing with an impressive win in Belmont’s Peter Pan and seems the most likely of the “fresh” Belmont horses to take the wind from California Chrome’s sails the Triple Crown finale.

Back for a third try against the Derby winner are two Churchill Downs-based horses that have chased California Chrome throughout the Triple Crown: Ride On Curlin and General a Rod. The former was second in the Preakness and far ahead of the rest after an eventual Derby journey. General a Rod has endured horrendous racing luck in both the Derby and Preakness, but has the speed to be in a competitive position throughout in Saturday’s race and is far overdue for some good fortune.

Also returning from the Derby are runner-up Commanding Curve and fourth-place Wicked Strong. Each has trained well in the interim and would seem to have an advantage in being fresh from their respective Derby runs.

Another Derby veteran is Medal Count, a colt that has always brought a smile to trainer Dale Romans’ lips, but has yet to grab the signature moment that his trainer believes is within his reach. He suffered major traffic woes in the Derby and one does not have to work hard to imagine a runner-up finish by Medal Count without his mid-stretch woes.

The New York-based Samraat, fifth in the Derby, is very intriguing. This longshot’ s race at Churchill Downs looks better, at least to his observer, in the rear-view mirror. He’s another with tactical speed and is quite used to the distinctive racing surface at Belmont that’s been dubbed “The Big Sandy” through the years.

All of those horses have a chance on Saturday, but all seem to need a misstep or mistake by California Chrome or jockey Victor Espinoza for their best chance.

In looking at the Derby, I went against a strong impression that California Chrome was the best horse and tried to find a way to beat the favorite. But I never felt confident in doing so.

This does not seem a time to go against the best horse, and without question that horse – to this point in his career – is California Chrome.

While wishing all the Belmont participants and their owners, trainers and jockeys the best the luck in Saturday’s 1 ½-mile Triple Crown test, make my Belmont top four: California Chrome, Medal Count, Tonalist, Samraat.