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Belmont Stakes Analysis: Can California Chrome be defeated?

June 6th, 2014
California Chrome: Will he try to wire the field at 12 furlongs?

California Chrome: Will he try to wire the field at 12 furlongs?

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.

Wicked Strong appears to be the most potent challenger to Chrome.

Wicked Strong appears to be the most potent challenger to Chrome.

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.

Commanding Curve: Will his style be adjusted?

Commanding Curve: Will his style be adjusted?

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 teams up with John Velazquez

Ride On Curlin teams up with John Velazquez

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anatomy of a Triple Crown loss: Real Quiet

June 5th, 2014

logo 1By J.J. HYSELL

One year after his Triple Crown hopeful Silver Charm suffered an agonizing loss to Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert, the hero of racing in the late 1990’s, returned to Big Sandy in 1998 with another chance in Real Quiet.

This showdown between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and late-running rival Victory Gallop, the Derby and Preakness runner-up, will never be classified as just a horse race. A tale of a rangy, unheralded, $17,000 colt nicknamed “The Fish” trying to end a drought dating back to 1978? Yes.

A story of two jockeys, veterans, one under fire for his rides with something to prove and the other playing the role of spoiler this time around? Of course.

A mind-blowing ending with multiple subplots? You bet.

Jockey Gary Stevens felt the sting of Triple Crown heartbreak in that defeat aboard Silver Charm. This time, he would be the one delivering the punch to the gut via an exquisite ride aboard an Ontario-bred who was originally bought with the Queen’s Plate in Canada in mind.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux, confident and proud of the horse that was considered one of Baffert’s bench players before the Triple Crown trail, endured criticism for his handling of Real Quiet. They said he moved too soon on the colt, whose trademark was a bold middle move with an explosive burst of speed.

Baffert defended him.

“Sometimes when a horse wants to go and you hold him back, he’s not going to have that same punch,” Baffert said.

Real Quiet wasn’t just running for history. His owner, Mike Pegram, was in line to pocket a $5 million bonus from Visa, then-sponsor of the Triple Crown. The saga of this common-looking colt with uncommon speed, with his embattled pilot and popular trainer, was reaching an unforeseen plateau.

Not everyone was convinced. Various scribes at Belmont dismissed his chances in the Test of the Champion. Some went as far as to say even if he did win, he wasn’t really worthy because it was a weak crop hampered by injuries to its marquee prospects.

Momentum was in Real Quiet’s favor a week from the race. He was training superbly at Churchill Downs ahead of his date with destiny. With fans now convinced, the bandwagon filled up, and Baffert’s effervescent nature landed horse racing on front pages daily. 

Meanwhile, Victory Gallop was falling out of favor among pundits. He developed a nasty skin rash after the Preakness that caused him to miss training and left him with just one opportunity to work before the Belmont. The taxing Preakness effort also caused him to shed weight. Hard luck extended to Victory Gallop’s young trainer, Elliott Walden, who broke his ankle in a pick-up basketball game prior to the race and was forced to navigate on crutches. He enlisted the help of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who would saddle Victory Gallop on Belmont day.

Still, the Victory Gallop team was undeterred. Walden met with Stevens the day before the race and they devised a plan. They knew Real Quiet’s weakness – and it played right to Victory Gallop’s strength.

“Let Real Quiet make his move,” Walden instructed Stevens. “Don’t try to go with him.”

Clear skies greeted the crowd of 80,162 and a fast track set the stage for one of the most memorable editions of the 12-furlong race.

Victory Gallop marched into the paddock a different horse. “He had a glow in his eye,” Stevens said. Other than a small area on his back, the colt’s coat showed no signs of the issue that had plagued him just a week ago. He shined. When Stevens climbed aboard and gathered the reins, the colt swelled up, arched his neck and started prancing.

As Stevens guided Victory Gallop to the tunnel, he heard a voice shouting something his direction. He knew who it was. He didn’t shift his focus.

It was Baffert.

“I know what he was trying to do,” Stevens said. “He was trying to get me out of it. That’s his job.”

Baffert wasn’t without his own agitators. As the trainer made his way up to his seat, he passed a gaggle of hecklers. One held up a sign that said: “Bob, not today.” It didn’t help that when Baffert got to his seat, his son mentioned the sign, like it was an omen.

As expected, speedy Chillito and Robbie Davis set the early pace with Grand Slam and Jerry Bailey tagging along closely. Limit Out joined the leaders and formed a trio up front that escorted a stalking Real Quiet in the prime spot.

“I folded into the first turn and had him right between horses,” Desormeaux said. “He didn’t get a grain of sand in his face.”

Desormeaux kept his colt behind the speed until they maneuvered into the second turn.

“I moved him to the outside and he just started cantering,” he said. “He was in an absolute canter.”

Meanwhile, Victory Gallop remained at the back of the pack, weaving his way through traffic and biding his time.

“I was bumped the first time at the five-sixteenths pole, when I was going between horses,” Stevens said.

In a moment that still elicits goose bumps, Real Quiet zoomed by Chillito with a sudden turn of foot that put him squarely on the lead.

“It was very difficult to hit the three-eighths pole and see Real Quiet opening up on me and not move, not push the button,” Stevens said. “I wanted to push the button, believe me.”

The margin grew. The crowd roared. Real Quiet was separating himself from the rest of the field.

“When he turned for home on the lead, I wanted to cry,” Baffert said.

Real Quiet was all alone nearing the eighth-pole.

“I had flashbacks to Churchill Downs (the Derby), that we might not get there,” Walden said.

The Fish and the silver-haired trainer were about to deliver the moment the racing world had dreamed of for 20 years.

Or so it appeared.

Desormeaux, sensing trouble, turned to look behind him and saw a hard-charging Victory Gallop bearing down.

“My momentum was changing,” he said. “I knew he was starting to slow down being lost on the lead.”

Suddenly, Victory Gallop, on the outside, was alongside his rival and going head-to-head. With his mount struggling just a few strides from the finish, Desormeaux tugged blinkered Real Quiet’s head in an attempt to get him to see his challenger.

“I pulled his head up a little too hard,” Desormeaux said.

It caused Real Quiet to shift into Victory Gallop.

“It more or less stopped our colt,” Stevens said of the contact.

The pair reached the wire in unison. Stunned fans didn’t know whether to celebrate or head for the aisles. Who won?

Baffert asked trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas said, ‘You’ve got it.” Baffert remained cautious.

“I absolutely had no idea (who won),” Stevens said.

To add to the confusion, someone had lodged an objection, but no one knew who or why. It was Stevens, who had called to an outrider when he was pulling up to notify stewards that he had been bumped.

It wouldn’t matter.

Victory Gallop won the Belmont Stakes by a nose.

“He put in his run and he flattened out at the end,” Baffert said. “The Fish floundered and that was it.”

Veteran jockey Chris McCarron, who was third aboard Thomas Jo, delivered words of encouragement to Desormeaux in the jockeys’ room. He told Desormeaux not to worry about it. He was still a champion and there would be more to come.

Asked by a reporter if he felt the loss was his fault for a premature move, Desormeaux responded, “Somewhat, yes.”

Baffert interrupted. “It was not his fault. It’s not his fault. If he would have waited, that horse wouldn’t have had that punch. That’s his style.”

Last year, it was Stevens feeling the pinch. He watched Desormeaux going through the same turmoil in the paddock, one year later.

“He probably feels like he’s let the whole country down,” Stevens said. “He has nothing to be ashamed of.”

Baffert suffered through the nose loss by Cavonnier to Grindstone in the 1996 Kentucky Derby, Silver Charm’s defeat and now strike three. Although the light in his eyes had dimmed, the light remained.

“Eventually I’m going to win this thing,” he said.

 

Belmont Stakes 2014: Post positions, odds

June 4th, 2014

belmont logoThe Belmont Stakes lineup:

1. Medal Count – 20-1

Romans/Albarado

2. California Chrome – 3-5

Sherman/Espinoza

3. Matterhorn – 30-1

Pletcher/Bravo

4. Commanding Curve – 15-1

Stewart/Bridgmohan

5. Ride On Curlin – 12-1

Gowan/Velazquez

6. Matuszak – 30-1

Mott/Smith

7. Samraat – 20-1

Violette/J. Ortiz

8. Commissioner – 20-1

Pletcher/Castellano

9. Wicked Strong – 6-1

Jerkens/Maragh

10. General a Rod – 20-1

Maker/Napravnik

11. Tonalist – 8-1

Clement/Rosario

 

Kid Cruz won’t run in Belmont Stakes

June 3rd, 2014

belmont logoKid Cruz, eighth in the Preakness Stakes in his last start, will bypass the Belmont Stakes and point for another race, trainer Linda Rice said Tuesday.

“We have decided to pass on the Belmont,” Rice said in NYRA press notes. “Frankly, he didn’t perform at Pimlico. It was a flat effort on his part. We’ll just look for an easy race for him to get him back on track. It’s a long summer.”

Kid Cruz is likely to make his next start in the Easy Goer on the Belmont undercard or the Dywer at Belmont Park on July 5.

 

How the Belmont Stakes field is taking shape: June 2

June 2nd, 2014

How the Belmont Stakes field is taking shape as of June 2:

1. California Chrome (Victor Espinoza)

The Triple Crown hopeful worked four furlongs in :47.69 (per NYRA; :47.61 per Equibase) at Belmont Saturday to rave reviews by those on the scene. He’s slated to jog on Monday, gallop from Tuesday through Friday and jog the morning of the race per NYRA.

Video: California Chrome’s work  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU9T7-PwGH0

 

2. Wicked Strong (Rajiv Maragh)

The son of Hard Spun worked five furlongs in :59.10 over the Belmont training track Sunday. “He’ll probably just gallop into the race,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens.

Video: Wicked Strong’s work   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wkMjkkYB1s

 

3. Commanding Curve (Shaun Bridgmohan)

He arrived at Belmont on Thursday; worked four furlongs in :47.38 in company Sunday. “I thought he worked great,” said trainer Dallas Stewart. “I’ve never seen him work any better. It was easy, and he was calm and perfect. He came back not blowing.”

Video: Commanding Curve’s work   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3iQg2RCIBk

 

4. Medal Count (Robby Albarado)

The son of Dynaformer was declared for the race Tuesday; worked six furlongs in 1:10.60 at Churchill Downs on Saturday. The Dale Romans trainee is set to ship to Belmont on Thursday.

5. Tonalist (Joel Rosario)

Tonalist worked five furlongs in 1:00.14 in company at Belmont Saturday. “He came out of his work in good order,” trainer Christophe Clement said Sunday. “He looked great this morning.”

Video: Tonalist’s work   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keibUmyVSb4

 

6. Ride On Curlin (John Velazquez)

The son of Curlin worked seven furlongs in 1:28.03 at Belmont on Sunday. “I thought he went super,” trainer Billy Gowan said.

Video: Ride On Curlin’s work   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVqQaka7q7w

 

7. Samraat (Jose Ortiz)

Samraat worked one mile in 1:47.55 at Aqueduct on Saturday. “He didn’t break any stop watches, but it was pretty cool,” said trainer Rick Violette. The New York-bred is expected to ship to Belmont mid-week.

8. Commissioner (Javier Castellano)

The Todd Pletcher trainee worked in company with possible Belmont Stakes contender Matterhorn on the training track Sunday and went four furlongs in :49.86.

Video: Commissioner and Matterhorn work:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UStodjiaO-o

 

9. Matterhorn (Joe Bravo)

He was confirmed for the race on Monday. Matterhorn worked in company with Belmont Stakes contender Commissioner over training track Sunday and went four furlongs in :49.90.

10. General a Rod (Rosie Napravnik)

The son of Roman Ruler was declared for the race on Saturday and worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 at Churchill Training Center that morning. “We waited it out, and the horse told us to go,” trainer Mike Maker said. “I felt good before the Preakness and I feel good before the Belmont. One of these times we’re going to have a clean run and go from there.”

11. Social Inclusion (Irad Ortiz)

Social Inclusion worked a blazing three furlongs in :33.55 at Belmont on Saturday. A decision on his next race is anticipated today.

Video: Social Inclusion’s work   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFlggBgecIA

 

12. Matuszak (Mike Smith)

The son of Bernardini worked five furlongs in 1:00.94 in company at Belmont on Sunday; trainer Bill Mott tabbed the work “great.” “I realize we’re kind of a long shot and we’re reaching, but the horse is actually coming around at the right time, whatever that may mean.”

13. Kid Cruz (TBA)

The Linda Rice trainee worked six furlongs in 1:14.53 on the Belmont training track on Friday. A decision is expected soon on his status for the race.

 

 

 

Dale Romans convincing when giving his case for Medal Count in the Belmont

May 31st, 2014
Medal Count before the Kentucky Derby

Medal Count before the Kentucky Derby

In Saturday’s Churchill Downs media notes, trainer Dale Romans gave some insight into how the decision was made to run Medal Count in the Belmont Stakes.

Medal Count, eighth after a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby, was confirmed for the race earlier this week after Romans talked with Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes.

“I knew we were meeting Tuesday at Cracker Barrel,” Romans said. “I was thinking of all the reasons I wanted to run him in the Belmont and why it would work. (Hughes) is one of the most intimidating men in the game. I walked in and sat down at the table with my stuff ready to go and he said, ‘When are we shipping?’ I said, ‘Do you want to run there?’ He said, ‘Do you?’ I said ‘Yes’ and he said ‘Run.’ Then we had eggs and talked about economics!”

Medal Count, who will have Robby Albarado aboard for the Belmont, ships to New York Thursday. He worked six furlongs in 1:10.60 at Churchill Downs on Saturday morning.