Send in the Crown?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby, takes the fourth turn at Belmont Park during a workout with rider Emerson Chavez.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby, takes the fourth turn at Belmont Park during a workout with rider Emerson Chavez.
Posted: June 06, 2014

IF HORSE RACING was not so different than other sports, I would be pleased to tell everybody there is no way California Chrome can lose tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.

There are dozens of reasons why CC should win and become America's first Triple Crown winner since 1978 and 12th ever. He has won six consecutive races, including three consecutive Grade I stakes, the highest level of American racing. CC's opponents have just one Grade I win among them. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner's final Belmont workout last Saturday was absolutely dazzling. Perhaps, this is the exception to all the rules, the horse that loves to race and never gets tired.

There are a few reasons that suggest he can't win, including the 21st century phenomenon of horses running in the Kentucky Derby, passing the Preakness and then winning the Belmont Stakes. It has happened seven times in 14 years, most likely because training methods have changed so much in recent decades. The best horses do not run three times in 5 weeks except during the Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown races are 70 yards shy of 7,000. But it is the Belmont Stakes, the run at the mile-and-a-half oval that is Belmont Park, that it so perplexing. Back when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed were winning those three Crowns in 6 years, mile-and-a-half races were fairly common.

In 1979, there were 122 mile-and-a-half races and 245 races even longer. Last year, there were 75 mile-and-a-half races and just 35 longer than that.

American horses are not trained to go far anymore. And they are rarely asked to do it.

Still, Chrome's trainer Art Sherman does not see the distance as an issue.

"If they slow down the pace to a walk, he's probably going to be galloping on the lead," Sherman said.

And, if that happens, it will be very difficult to run California Chrome down in the stretch. Given that Chrome will be surrounded in the starting gate by slow horses and the likely speed appears to be at the other end of the gate, it might make sense for Victor Espinoza to put CC on the lead, control the pace and outsprint the field home.

Put the best horse on easy lead and the distance almost becomes irrelevant as there is serious racing only in the back end of the race.

The other trainers know exactly what they are up against.

"One of our horses will have to run the race of their life and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker," said Jimmy Jerkens, the trainer of Wicked Strong.

Precisely.

"I'm sure everybody knows you can't let him have everything his own way or else you can't beat him," Sherman said.

The same was true with Smarty Jones, with a twist.

Smarty was a target a decade ago in the Belmont Stakes and that did not turn out well. When asked if Chrome's running style reminded him of Smarty, the horse he trained, John Servis said: "He does except he's so much more relaxed."

The ability to relax and the ability to accelerate instantly, almost if the jockey is pushing on an invisible accelerator, are why Chrome is so good.

"I feel more confident, I think, coming into this race than I did any race," Sherman said.

The trainer knows the history, but it is not burdened by it.

"I watched the other races when they failed," he said. "I don't know if they just got flat outrun or they were just tired from the Triple Crown races, I just don't know. But I know my horse is coming into this race great. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."

I think it is meant to be, but I was as sure it was meant to be in 2004. I know why Smarty did not win and it had nothing to do with his ability. I think it was the way the race was run that beat him more than the talent of the horse (Birdstone) that beat him.

Wicked Strong is a very talented horse that should love the sweeping turns at Belmont Park. He is definitely dangerous. So is Commanding Curve who was no fluke second in the Derby. That rally was not an illusion. Tonalist has always had great promise. He delivered in the Peter Pan Stakes.

In the last 20 years, the Belmont Stakes has had some impossible results. Therefore, many who know Chrome is the best horse are frightened by ghosts of upsets past.

I am going to single Chrome at the end of multi-race bets, hoping to get my upsets in a race like the Metropolitan Handicap (15-1 Romansh will be on my ticket) or the Just A Game (Coffee Clique is live at 10-1).

"[Chrome] might have to take a step back," said Billy Gowan, the trainer of Ride On Curlin, second in the Preakness. "But I'm in the same barn with him every day, and he doesn't look like he's regressing to me any. He looks like he's training nicely. So it's just hard to say. You never know which horse really wants to go a mile and a half. You don't ask them that too often and some horses absolutely do not want to go a mile and a half . . . It's really the unknown because nobody really knows. We've never tried it."

Sherman had never won a million race until the Santa Anita Derby. The Kentucky Derby was $2 million, the Preakness $1.5 million, just like the Belmont Stakes.

"I was always kind of a claiming type of trainer," Sherman said. "Now I'm up there with all the big boys . . . It's just an honor being blessed to have a horse like him."

California Chrome left his California home the week of the Derby, already heroic in his home state where he made his reputation by winning five stakes races.

"He has such a following, it's unbelievable," Sherman said. "People in California think he's their horse."

If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, everybody everywhere will think he is their horse.

Whatever tomorrow's result, Chrome will be heading home soon, gearing up for a late summer and fall campaign. Meanwhile, Sherman may stop by his old Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, grab some dinner in Little Italy, catch a play with his wife, waiting for early tomorrow evening to get here.

Horse racing is the ultimate waiting game. Nothing happens quickly. It all just sort of evolves. The sport has been waiting 36 years for that next Triple Crown winner. Who knew it might be a colt by a $2,000 sire out of an $8,000 mare?

We are down to the final hours now. California Chrome will have millions of dollars bet on him to win. This will be about money, but this is bigger than cashing a bet. This is about the hope that this horse, finally, is the one.

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