California Chrome will attempt to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep all three legs of the Triple Crown in Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, and there’s no need to overthink it when handicapping the race -- he’s the fastest horse in the field by a good margin and should prove best if he runs his race.
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. The undercard will be broadcast on NBCSN starting at 2:30.
One factor in California Chrome’s favor is that he’s done just enough to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown comfortably, leaving something in the tank for the longest race in the series, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
He decimated the competition in his early-season prep races, winning his first three starts this year at Santa Anita by a combined 18 lengths, and the bright chestnut colt threatened to run away in similar fashion at Churchill Downs, opening up by daylight in upper stretch before jockey Victor Espinoza eased him up well before the wire. His 1 3/4-length win margin in the Kentucky Derby was deceiving.
California Chrome had to work harder in the Preakness, fending off a challenge on the far turn before taking the best shot from runner-up Ride on Curlin in the stretch drive, but he reasserted control late and wasn’t going to lose no matter how far they went that afternoon, scoring by an authoritative 1 1/2 lengths.
His BRIS Speed numbers are top-notch, and California Chrome’s speed should prove to be a major asset in the Belmont. With the connections of Social Inclusion opting to run in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens on the undercard, the 11-horse field lacks front-runners.
California Chrome is eligible to flash to the front and lead wire to wire on a slow pace, or he can sit second if another rival sacrifices himself on the front end. Either way, Espinoza can save plenty of horse for the latter stages and that’s important at the extreme 1 1/2-mile distance.
Post No. 2 isn’t ideal, but jockey Victor Espinoza is driving a Ferrari against a field of VW Bugs. The Art Sherman-trained favorite appears far superior against a field of questionable rivals.
Fatigue, a bad start or troubled trip remain possible obstacles in his path, but barring any unforeseen circumstances, California Chrome will win Saturday and join Thoroughbred racing’s legends as the 12th Triple Crown winner.
If California Chrome falters, Tonalist has the best chance to post the upset. Unlike the rest of the field, which has already been exposed at the highest level, Tonalist was making his stakes debut, and only his fourth career start, when he recorded a convincing four-length victory in the May 10 Peter Pan at Belmont Park. That race came in the slop, and it will be fast track on Saturday, but he was impressive nonetheless, earning a 107 Speed rating.
Tonalist owns good tactical speed, which should ensure a favorable trip just off the lead, and the fact that jockey Joel Rosario opted to ride him over Ride on Curlin tells us something -- he believes in the improving colt. I’m expecting a strong showing that nets runner-up honors.
Commissioner offers some potential for value on the bottom of the exotics. A good-looking allowance winner in his 2014 debut at Gulfstream, he was outpaced in his next three stakes attempts and couldn’t quicken enough in the latter stages to make an impact.
The well-bred colt (by Belmont winner A.P. Indy and out of a mare by Belmont winner Touch Gold) showed more last time in the Peter Pan, racing closer to the early action before finishing second, and if he can stay within striking range during the early stages, Commissioner appears capable of grinding his way through the stretch to a minor award.
Commanding Curve owns only a maiden victory, but five of the last eight Belmont winners were in the same position. I was impressed by his rally in the Kentucky Derby, overcoming a lack of pace to easily prove second-best, and rate the improving 3-year-old as a logical top three contender. Commanding Curve will need to race a little closer but given the likelihood of slow early fractions, he’s eligible to sit a better trip and come running late for a share.
Wicked Strong is the only Grade 1 winner in the field outside of California Chrome, taking the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial by 3 1/2 lengths, and experienced a troubled trip when breaking from post 20 in the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t like the way he handled the paddock and post parade at Churchill Downs, displaying signs of immaturity, and he faces another large crowd at Belmont Park Saturday. His late running style isn’t ideal, but Wicked Strong remains a promising 3-year-old who could rally well in the final furlongs.
Samraat doesn’t appear suited for the 1 1/2-mile distance and his Speed ratings are on the slow side, but the hard-trying colt is based in New York, breaking his maiden at Belmont Park last October, and could put his speed to good use in a slow-paced race. He has an outside chance to finish in the top three.
Ride On Curlin also can’t be dismissed from top three consideration, but he’s dropped all eight stakes attempts, posting his only wins in sprint races, and I don’t favor his chances stretching out to 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont.
Medal Count is bred for the distance and turned in a couple of commendable performances over Keeneland’s Polytrack in April, but he’s probably best at this stage of his career on turf and synthetic surfaces. The deep, tiring track at Belmont could prove to be too much for him to overcome.
The remaining contestants -- General A Rod, Matterhorn and Matuszak -- appear overmatched.
I’m looking forward to a great day of racing at Belmont Park on Saturday and expect to celebrate a Triple Crown winner.