Elmont, NY -- California Chrome pursues Triple Crown glory in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and the question I get asked most is, “Will California Chrome do it?”
That’s impossible to answer with any certainty.
California Chrome appears more than capable -- he’s towered over his crop all year -- but the best 3-year-old doesn’t always win the Belmont Stakes. It’s been 36 years since the last Triple Crown winner and many top Thoroughbreds have tried but failed to sweep all three legs.
NBC’s coverage of the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes kicks off at 4:30 p.m. (ET) and the horses are scheduled to enter the starting gate at 6:52.
I’ll answer some further questions surrounding California Chrome’s Triple Crown pursuit:
Why is the 1 ½-mile distance so difficult?
The vast oval at Belmont Park represents an extreme challenge, from both a physical and mental standpoint, as horses must conserve enough energy to be able to finish through the long stretch drive. That leaves little margin for error for their riders.
Smarty Jones, who entered the 2004 Belmont Stakes with a perfect 8-for-8 record and was favored at 1-5 to complete the Triple Crown sweep, moved too soon during the early stages and didn’t have enough in reserve to withstand the stretch bid of upset winner Birdstone.
“You don’t know which horse will go a mile and a half,” said Billy Gowan, trainer of Preakness runner-up Ride on Curlin, one of California Chrome’s main adversaries Saturday. “It’s not something we ask them to do very often.”
American breeders no longer covet long-distance pedigrees – the Belmont Stakes is the only Grade 1 dirt race at the distance – and horses are now being bred more for speed than stamina; most participants will never compete at 1 ½ miles again, so there’s little incentive to breed a “Belmont Stakes type” horse.
“A mile and a half can be a little strange,” said Billy Turner, who trained Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977. “The only question you have is, will (California Chrome) get the mile and a half.”
Is California Chrome bred for the distance?
His immediate bloodlines offer little hope, but California Chrome is clearly drawing from influences deeper in his pedigree.
Sire Lucky Pulpit captured his lone stakes win in a five-furlong turf sprint, so he didn’t project stamina based upon accomplishments on track, but Lucky Pulpit is by Pulpit, a son of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy.
The female family is similar – California Chrome’s dam raced primarily in low-priced claiming sprint races but there are a number of potent sources of stamina further back in her lineage.
Does it matter that he is the first California-bred horse to be in this position?
No. Only 8 percent of the 2012 foal crop was bred in California – Kentucky accounts for one-third of the number and is where most of the high-quality sires and broodmares reside – but California Chrome is proof that a good horse can from anywhere.
His owner/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin spent only $8,000 to acquire his mother, Love the Chase, and paid $2,500 to breed her to sire Lucky Pulpit – a pittance compared to the stud fees for top stallions.
He’s not an imposing individual physically, but California Chrome is fast, posting dominant victories in six straight starts.
“To watch this little guy grow up and watch him develop and watch his personality develop and just watch his mind develop, he's an amazing animal,” co-owner and co-breeder Steve Coburn said. “He really, really is. I wish every horse owner out there could have a horse like this because he's like one in a bazillion. This horse could have been born to anybody. He was born to us, and we're very blessed with that."
How is California Chrome coming into the race?
California Chrome shipped to Belmont Park the Tuesday after the Preakness (May 20) and has not skipped a beat in his preparations, training splendidly over the oval in advance of his first start at Belmont Park.
He impressed onlookers when recording a timed workout last weekend, traveling effortlessly while posting a fast time, and his physical appearance is striking – the chestnut colt, with four white feet and white blaze down his nose, has shown no signs of being worn down by the grueling demands of three races in a five-week period.
“I feel better about this race than I have any other race, to be honest with you, just looking at the horse and saying, 'Wow,'" trainer Art Sherman said. "I see how far he's advanced. I know it'll be tougher going a mile and a half, but this horse is a good horse. I think he's the real McCoy. They better worry about me, I can tell you that.
What factors, besides the 1 ½-mile distance, could derail California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid?
Fatigue remains a legitimate concern regardless of how well California Chrome is training into the race. Horses don’t talk, so handlers and observers can only speculate about their condition, and California Chrome had to work much harder, and wound up running faster as a result, in the Preakness than he did in the Kentucky Derby.
It’s a short three-week turnaround from that performance and California Chrome will be facing horses with much more rest than him on Saturday.
"There's a lot of fresh horses taking shots at me," Sherman said. "He's going to have a target on his back. It's going to be a jockey race. (Jockey Victor Espinoza) will just have to maneuver him to the right spot and just sit there and not move too quick. It's a long race. He just needs to have a good trip; that's all I hope for."
California Chrome broke poorly in a few starts earlier in his career and a bad start could compromise his chances as well as pilot error – Espinoza can’t afford to lose his focus upon the heavy favorite.
Will a loss be a major blow for horse racing?
It’s debatable. The sport could use a Triple Crown winner – there’s a false public perception that it’s an impossible task – but if California Chrome falters, it won’t be disastrous. The next horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown will come to Belmont Park in a similar position if he comes up short.
“Everything from here on out is a bonus," Sherman said. "He already has exceeded our expectations. It just has been an amazing ride; I just thank God we get to train a horse like that."