By J.J. HYSELL
According to a statistical analysis by the New York Racing Association, no horse has won the Triple Crown when the Belmont Stakes field had eight or more contenders. Barring scratches, this year’s field will have 11.
Jon White of HRTV noted that all 11 Triple Crown winners had a previous race over the Belmont track. This will be California Chrome’s first trip on the oval.
While statistics on paper seem to line up against him, the visual truth does nothing but confirm California Chrome as the next Triple Crown winner. He is the picture of fitness despite the grueling Triple Crown campaign that has included three Grade 1 challenges in three months. He glides over the Belmont track when he gallops. His calm demeanor despite hordes of onlookers crowding his space indicates that he’ll welcome the zany atmosphere he’s sure to encounter on Saturday.
The way California Chrome has handled the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with ease, it’s doubtful the added distance in the 12-furlong Test of the Champion will be an issue. His No. 2 post position is also fine for his running style.
If California Chrome loses the Belmont, it will be because of tactics.
The chestnut colt had two perfect trips in the first two races of the trio, thanks to expert guidance from veteran jockey Victor Espinoza. He settled in a pocket just off the moderate pace and cruised to the lead, using his tactical speed to fend off late challengers.
California Chrome has not won when he’s been farther back than fourth. That’s also because he hasn’t been in that position in quite some time. The California-bred is at his best when he can sit right off the speed, usually to his inside.
There are multiple Belmont Stakes scenarios, with a primary one being California Chrome inheriting an early lead. He’s drawn between two closers/stalkers in Medal Count and Matterhorn. Tonalist, the most likely pace challenger, drew the widest post, which could make it difficult for him to immediately challenge California Chrome. Samraat is a possible pace candidate who could pressure the Triple Crown hopeful from post No. 7, but it’s doubtful he will show speed or expend himself trying to outrun California Chrome in the early stages.
This leads to the intriguing question: Can California Chrome wire the field at a mile-and-a-half?
The Art Sherman trainee went gate to wire in the San Felipe Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. His early fractions in that race, however, were :23.09 and :45.55, which would be a blistering pace for the Belmont. It’s more likely Espinoza would try to slow down and control the pace on the front end before trying to pull away from the field in the later stages.
Can anyone beat California Chrome?
Wicked Strong (#9) is an interesting challenger. This son of Hard Spun has been consistent if you discount the Holy Bull Stakes, in which he was imbalanced in the gate and cut himself on the hind end. What’s most appealing about Wicked Strong is he is accustomed to closing into soft fractions, a talent that might be handy here. He was gaining momentum late in the glacial Remsen Stakes and rallied from last in a salty optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park that included Constitution and Tonalist. Although a bit green in the stretch, he looked full of run when he won the Wood Memorial. He is the only other Grade 1 winner in the field.
Wicked Strong ran exceptionally well in the Kentucky Derby despite a disadvantageous draw in the outside post. He stumbled at the start, was left wide and knocked around, yet still managed to finish a good fourth.
The only negative with this Jimmy Jerkens trainee is his tendency to get worked up before races. He is a temperamental type who did his training on Belmont’s training track so he could stay close to the barn. He needed a pony and a handler. He’s also been wearing cotton in his ears because he’s bothered by noise. Things went smoothly at the Kentucky Derby, so it’s an unknown at this point. This is a track he is familiar with, as he began his career here, so that’s in his favor.
Since most Belmont Stakes winners have won on or near the pace, it would appear Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve (#4), a late closer, is at a disadvantage. The son of Master Command has closed from very far off the pace in his last four races. Note that he also has drawn wide in those four contests (16, 7, 12, 11) and now moves to the inside tier. It’s possible jockey Shaun Bridgmohan could have this Dallas Stewart trainee closer to the pace. He also has closed into soft fractions, including when he broke his maiden in November at Churchill Downs.
Although he didn’t run in the Preakness, Commanding Curve is reminiscent of 1998 Belmont winner Victory Gallop, who closed from the clouds to nip Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid. He’s trained very well over the Belmont surface.
Another late closer, Medal Count (#1), had traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby, which was his third race in a month. Well-rested, he comes in off two bullet works at Churchill Downs. Note that his six-furlong work prior to the Kentucky Derby was in 1:13 while his six-furlong work on May 31 was in 1:10. It’s also interesting that the Dale Romans trainee broke from post No. 13 in his past two races. Prior to that, he broke from the rail in the Transylvania Stakes, his most recent win.
The question surrounding Medal Count concerns class. He’s bred for the distance and trains exceptionally well on dirt, but to this point he hasn’t proven himself against top-tier company like some of the others in this field.
Tonalist (#11) looked to be the primary pace challenger to California Chrome until he drew the widest post. In his four-race career, he’s not started from farther out than the No. 8 post and has not won from beyond post No. 4. Jockey Joel Rosario will have crucial decisions to make in the early stages of the race as to where to take position. Tonalist proved he can rate when he executed a brilliant victory at a mile and one-eighth at Gulfstream in just his second start. Both of his wins came at this distance, and he runs like a colt who will do fine with additional distance. For Tonalist, all will depend on Rosario’s tactics.
Although Ride On Curlin (#5, 12-1) has had a grueling campaign since February with five graded stakes races – including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness – he doesn’t show signs of fatigue in his morning training. He did appear tired prior to the Derby, but looked rejuvenated at Pimlico before the Preakness, and showed marked improvement in that race as he was a solid second to California Chrome.
Ride On Curlin’s best asset is his versatility. The Billy Gowan trainee can come from far off the pace or stalk closely. He’s also very athletic. His pedigree carries the bloodlines of Belmont success as he’s a son of Curlin, who was second in the race in 2007. Curlin’s son Palace Malice won the race last year.
Another factor for Ride On Curlin is the switch from Rosario to John Velazquez. Velazquez is not only one of the best jockeys in the country, he is exceptionally formidable at Belmont - a huge advantage.
If there was a horse born for this very race, it’s Commissioner (#8). The son of a Belmont winner in A.P. Indy, out of a dam by a Belmont winner in Touch Gold, he is an old-school grinder who looks perfect for a mile and a half. He began his career at a mile and both of his victories were at a mile and an eighth. Like Medal Count, Commissioner’s main drawback is he has yet to prove himself in graded stakes company. His best performance at this level was a second over a sloppy track in the Peter Pan.
It’s interesting to note that in both of Commissioner’s victories, he was closer to the pace than he was in his stakes losses. It’s also intriguing that he’s not drawn wider than post No. 5 in his career. This Todd Pletcher trainee, who will be ridden by Javier Castellano, a good jockey proven in New York, is a tough puzzle to figure.
Studying the running lines of long shot Matuszak (#6), it’s obvious this Bill Mott trainee wants more distance than what he’s been getting. He’s also a colt with a pedigree tailored for Belmont, being a son of Bernardini, by A.P. Indy, and out of a Mr. Prospector mare. The Bernardini progeny tend to improve with age. He’s obviously taking a major class leap, but many recent Belmont winners came from Pimlico. He also gets jockey Mike Smith aboard, who is adept in working with closers.
There’s a lot of buzz about Samraat (#7), a New York-bred who is small in stature but packs a mighty punch. His record speaks for itself as he’s won 5 of 7, including second in a Grade 1, and was a solid fifth in the Kentucky Derby. With Tonalist drawn to the outside, Samraat is the most likely pace candidate with California Chrome. This could put him in a tough position, however, as he will likely only be able to hang with the country’s top 3-year-old for so long. He’s in a better spot if he is able to sit off of California Chrome and use him as a stalking target around an oval he’s found success on in the past. Interesting to note the stark differences in his work pattern with a mile work in 1:41.28 at Belmont on May 25 followed by one mile in 1:47.55 at Aqueduct on May 31. A Belmont horse for course?
General a Rod (#10) reunites with jockey Rosie Napravnik, who was aboard for his very impressive debut win at Keeneland. In that race, he was forced to rally from last after a bad start. He was closer to the pace in his races in Florida by design, but this is a colt who proved he can rate and also handle adversity. His fourth in the Preakness was better than it looks on paper. He’ll need to step it up a notch to match with these, however, and a lack of experience at Belmont, plus being a late shipper, could be a detraction.
Matterhorn (#3) rounds out the field. This Todd Pletcher trainee is very promising, but admittedly would be a shocker here. He hasn’t won since his maiden win in November at Aqueduct at a mile. The son of Tapit’s running style indicates he would like added distance, but his pedigree leans to middle distance.