ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — I came to New York this week to cover a Triple Crown chase. But this week, at the Belmont Park race track and the diners, in the hotel and on the 42-stoplight drive down Hempstead Turnpike to the track, I’ve not felt like I was covering an actual Triple Crown.
It’s one of those times I hope I’m wrong. Maybe this is the way it should be. I was sure Big Brown was going to end the Triple Crown drought. I just knew Smarty Jones was coming home a winner. Has anyone looked more dominant than Funny Cide, and he had three wins at Belmont Park coming back to try the Triple.
So maybe this is a good sign. I don’t think California Chrome will do it. There are some points in his favor. He has trained beautifully. He looks better than he’s ever looked. There’s nothing in his workout or form to suggest he won’t run big. And he has a first-class rider, one who has been in this situation before. He’s wonderfully versatile, which you have to be to win this race. There are many reasons to like him. Exercise rider Willie Delgado was standing up on him, holding him back in his last workout, and he eased through a mile in his gallop out in 1:40.92. Wicked Strong, generally considered to have turned in the best pre-Belmont work of any horse, worked a mile in 1:39.59.
So why don’t I think he will win? I offer five reasons. 1. Track familiarity. Belmont Park is so different. And not only is its massive half-mile track different from a size standpoint, but the track itself is surely going to be of a different composition than what California Chrome has worked out on in the mornings the past several weeks. A beautiful day in the 80s on Long Island means that he’ll experience Big Sandy at its biggest and sandiest. And then there’s this bit of history — no Triple Crown winner has accomplished the feat without having at least one race over the Belmont track before the Belmont Stakes. In fact, every Triple Crown winner since the first — Sir Barton — has had multiple races at Belmont. 2. Competition. If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, he will have beaten more competitors in the three races than any other champion. No Triple Crown winner has beaten more than seven horses in the Belmont. California Chrome will face ten. Secretariat beat only four competitors. So did Count Fleet and Affirmed.
3. Pace. The Belmont, long as it is, doesn’t favor closers from far off the pace. Only twice in 30 years has a horse come from more than 5 lengths out late to rally for the win. California Chrome prefers to settle just off the pace and make his move in the stretch. In this race, he may well set the early pace. There’s no true early speed. Maybe that’ll be a good thing for him, but it will be a different thing. 4. Conditioning. This isn’t a knock on California Chrome’s training, but an acknowledgement of the realities of today’s racing. Forget the Triple Crown. The last Kentucky Derby winner, period, to win the Belmont was Thunder Gulch in 1995. Horses just don’t try it. The last Preakness winner to win the race was Afleet Alex in 2005. Half the horses to win the race since 2000 were Kentucky Derby horses who skipped the Preakness. Four times in the peat seven years the winner of the Belmont didn’t run in either other leg of the Triple Crown. There’s a reason for that. Since 2000, eight of the 14 winners have paid $10 or more to win — a sign that the winners have come from off the radar, largely. 5. Mental conditioning. I’m not talking about the horse here. I’m talking about me. Maybe it applies to you, too. So many times I’ve come here seeing the Triple Crown as inevitable. Now, I look at California Chrome, and see a horse who won the Derby impressively, but who was anything but dominant in the Preakness. I see a colt whose sire never won a race longer than three-quarters of a mile. And I see all those torn Triple Crown tickets, the programs I bought for people when Big Brown lost, stacked somewhere in my basement, testament to the difficulty of winning a Triple Crown. This is no reason, of course, to pick against a horse. Certainly, if my doubts in some kind of karmic way contribute to California Chrome getting it done, I'm glad to contribute to the effort. I want to see it -- and be here to cover it. But like most, after decades of Triple Crown disappointment, you’ll have to put me in this camp: I’ll believe it when I see it.