California Chrome will not win the Belmont and the Triple Crown Saturday. How’s that for taking a provocative stand?
It’s not that I’m unsentimental, it’s that we’re currently in the longest stretch between Triple Crown winners--Affirmed, during his epic war with Alydar in 1978, was the last to do so--and 12 horses have gone to New York since Affirmed having swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to fail on “Big Sandy.” And, honestly, many of them were better horses than the cheaply-bred, out-of-nowhere California Chrome. Yes, he’ll be the prohibitive favorite Saturday, and the “experts” will tell you he’s a lock, the same way they said Spectacular Bid and Smarty Jones and Big Brown were all cinches--and we know how they tanked. Now, California Chrome may run second or third, he may lose close, or he may bomb utterly; all I know for sure is he won’t win.
The best horse not to win the Triple Crown was Spectacular Bid in 1979. Whether you believe his demise in the Belmont was caused by his callow, 19-year-old jockey Ron Franklin losing his mind and chasing a hopeless longshot through fast early fractions, or by the safety pin Bid’s trainer Bud Delp--who became known as “Bud Yelp” for the way he bragged on his horse and his loquacious nature--went to his grave swearing Bid stepped on the morning of the race, Bid lost the Belmont despite being one of the most dominant horses ever.
The list of broken dreams gets worse from there...from Alysheba and Sunday Silence losing to terrific rivals Bet Twice and Easy Goer in ‘87 and ‘89, to Pleasant Colony finishing third at 4-5 odds in ‘81, to the valiant Silver Charm getting closed on by Touch Gold in ‘97, to Real Quiet losing in a photo in ‘98 when Kent Desormeaux moved a touch early and was caught by a nose by Victory Gallop despite opening a seemingly insurmountable five-length lead in the stretch, to Smarty Jones meeting the same fate as Real Quiet in 2004 (opening up in the stretch only to get passed by a closer), to Chris Antley foolishly chasing a fast filly early in ‘99 and leaving nothing left in Charismatic’s tank to fend off the likes of Lemon Drop Kid, to Big Brown never lifting a hoof in ‘08, to War Emblem stumbling out of the gate and losing all chance in ‘02, to the classy Empire Maker lying in wait by skipping the Preakness and ambushing Funny Cide in the sloppy Belmont after being beaten by the gelding in Louisville, to I’ll Have Another scratching with an injury and not even racing in the Belmont in ‘12.
Maybe California Chrome can buck that frightful history, but he’ll do so without me on his proverbial back. He’s had dream trips in both the Derby and the Preakness, where the on-paper early speed never materialized, and one would think his luck is bound to run out. His pedigree also says he wants no part of 1.5 miles, but, to be fair, in the modern climate of horse racing, who does have that type of distance pedigree?
Look, the length of the Belmont is an anachronism in contemporary American horse racing. No dirt horse has ever run that far before they load into the Belmont gates, and they’ll never be asked to go that far again. Combine that with the fact that horses in the U.S. are now bred for speed and not stamina, and it’s no wonder the Belmont has produced numerous shocking results in recent years. It’s almost impossible to predict how these animals will take to the distance until they actually do it.
Put all that on top of the fact that any Triple Crown hopeful has run winning races in the Derby and Preakness in the five weeks prior to the Belmont, and it’s easy to understand why these hopefuls grow leg weary--like trying to cross the Sahara on ice skates--in the stretch of this “Test of the Champion.”
So, if not California Chrome, then whom? Well, that's where this gets dodgy. Part of his success is owed no doubt to a rather uninspiring group of three-year-olds. This isn't the salty group Silver Charm and Real Quiet had to battle in their years, and there is no Bet Twice or Easy Goer in this collection of colts.
Nevertheless, I'm going with Medal Count, 20-1 on the morning line, to upset the apple cart Saturday. Yes, you'll rightly recall I fancied him in the Derby, where he failed to hit the board. But, a closer examination reveals a troubled trip, and, despite the bumpy ride, he still ran a representative race and finished in the upper half of the 19-horse field. He skipped the Preakness, and the record of horses who follow that strategy over the less decade or so is substantially better than colts who try all three legs. Dale Romans, a superb and honest trainer, remains high on this horse, and his jockey, Robby Albarado, has a strong record on the tricky Belmont configuration, and he's one of the finest pace riders in the land--and the Belmont is definitively a riders' race. Medal Count also has Dynaformer in his pedigree, which means he'll get the exacting distance. He's shown strong workouts, and I think Albarado can put him up near the pace if it's slow, or he can drop into a stalking position if they go quickly up front.
I'm against Ride on Curlin (who proved me wrong with his runner-up finish in Baltimore) and General a Rod because, as mentioned above, the track record of horses who ran in the Derby and Preakness is lousy in New York. All that running in a short time seems to catch up with them in this the longest leg.
I'm also against Commanding Curve, though I touted him in the Derby and he ran second at a huge price to make me look really smart. He's a one-run closer, and I just don't see enough pace in this race to set him up. (Of course, the pace should've been hot in the Derby and Preakness, and it was slow, so, now that we have an expected slow pace, they'll probably all go burning for the lead.)
Wicked Strong is a tougher decision. He'll likely be second-choice in this race after running a troubled fourth in the Derby and skipping the Preakness. I liked him in Louisville off his wonderful win in the Wood Memorial, and he's another who should relish the distance. Again, though, he's a closer in a race without much pace. I'll use him, but I don't love him.
I feel the same about Tonalist, who will be second choice in the wagering to California Chrome if Wicked Strong isn't. He's shown flashes of brilliance, and he's trained by a master horseman in Christophe Clement, but he's had soundness issues, and though people will be amazed by his dominating victory in the local prep for the Belmont--the Peter Pan--that race was run in a monsoon, and the old handicapping edge says beware of blowout wins on sloppy tracks. Like Wicked Strong, I'll use him, because he could be special, but I'll do so cautiously, because I have my doubts.
The only other horse I could use is Commissioner. He lacks brilliance, but he's bred to run all day, and that plodding, grinding style often plays in the Belmont. He'll also be a big price, and for all his much-discussed issues at the Derby, his trainer, Todd Pletcher, does have an excellent record in the Belmont.
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan