California Chrome has become Thoroughbred racing's biggest star, extending his win streak to six with authoritative victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but his presence won't dissuade the competition from the Belmont Stakes.
There's too much recent history against him and the 1 1/2-mile distance represents such a daunting assignment.
Fans would love to see a Triple Crown winner -- 36 years has been too long a wait -- but 11 Thoroughbreds have come up short in the Belmont Stakes since Affirmed completed the last sweep, and dominant three-year-olds like Point Given and Afleet Alex bungled one of the earlier legs with a substandard performance.
There's no guarantee California Chrome will show up with his best effort on June 7.
He remains the most talented member of the group, with the potential to run his rivals off their feet once again, and is training forwardly at Belmont Park according to reports. But it's impossible to shake the foreboding sense of doubt that comes with this familiar territory and that emboldens the connections of California Chrome's rivals.
With 10 days left until the 146th running of the Belmont, 11 opponents appear likely to take on the heavy favorite. Here is a brief look at the competition, rated in categories:
Wicked Strong posted a 3 1/2-length win in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial two starts back and exits a troubled fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Based locally with Jimmy Jerkens, he could benefit from the hometown advantage and brings a strong closing kick to the equation.
Tonalist was derailed by a lung infection prior to the Wood, knocking him out of the Kentucky Derby as well, but he'll join the Triple Crown fray off of a four-length score in his stakes debut, the May 10 Peter Pan. That sterling performance netted a field-best 107 BRIS Speed rating and stamped him as a serious upset contender.
Ride On Curlin rebounded from a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, recording a commendable second in the Preakness, and the hard-trying colt is a candidate to finally break through at the highest level.
Commanding Curve made up a lot of ground through the stretch of the Kentucky Derby, registering a career-best effort in second, and the improving colt's connections hope the long Belmont stretch plays to a late runner's strengths.
Samraat won his first five starts in New York, including a pair of Grade 3 events, before sustaining his first setback with a second in the Wood. He missed fourth by a nose in the Kentucky Derby and will look to fire a career-best while returning to familiar surroundings at Belmont Park.
Medal Count should appreciate the 1 1/2-mile distance with his pedigree and the Dynaformer colt didn't get the chance to offer his best in the Kentucky Derby, finishing eighth after experiencing severe interference in the midst of a rally. He's eligible to run well if handles the deep track at Belmont Park.
Social Inclusion is under consideration for both the Belmont and seven-furlong Woody Stephens on the undercard, but nobody expects owner Ron Sanchez to opt for a lesser spotlight. The colt needs to handle the post parade better than he did at Pimlico, but his speed can't be overlooked.
Commissioner was nearly omitted from this grouping, registering pedestrian speed ratings through most of his career, but he exits an encouraging second in the Peter Pan and the grinder could find the 1 1/2-mile distance to his liking. Trainer Todd Pletcher upset last year's Belmont Stakes.
Kid Cruz was overmatched when stepping up to face Grade 1 competition in the Preakness; Materrhorn hasn't been a serious factor in three starts this year; and Matuszak probably needs easier company to be effective.
Social Inclusion, if he does enter the Belmont, figures to gun for the early lead. Samraat and Tonalist likely will be up close stalking the action but rate as possible wild cards, horses who could flash speed in an attempt to steal it.
California Chrome also owns plenty of speed, leading wire to wire in the San Felipe Stakes earlier this spring, and Victor Espinoza will have the option to send him if he breaks forwardly -- a slow early pace can be expected at the 1 1/2-mile distance.
However, Espinoza would prefer to settle into a similar trip that he enjoyed in the Kentucky Derby, in the clear tracking the front-runners while waiting until the top of the stretch to ask his mount. The jockey will attempt to save as much as possible for the latter stages regardless of early positioning.
The 1 1/2-mile distance has proven to be a great equalizer and California Chrome faced pedigree questions entering the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby five weeks ago. He's probably the first Belmont favorite to open his racing career with four straight races at less than six furlongs, short dashes that are usually filled by precocious types with distance limitations.
The bright chestnut has outrun any pedigree concerns so far and California Chrome now stands on the cusp of history.