By Jeff Frank, The Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – California Chrome looks to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years when he enters the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
Back in 1978, Affirmed defeated Alydar in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont to compile the hat trick as the 11th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history. Since then, there have been 12 horses that have won the first two legs only to fail – or in I’ll Have Another’s case not even run – in the Belmont.
The closest a horse came between 1979 and 2013 was Bob Baffert’s Real Quiet. The “Fish,” as he was called, won the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness over his main rival, Victory Gallop. As was the case with Alydar, Victory Gallop finished second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
(One interesting side note that not many people remember is Victory Gallop was actually favored over Real Quiet in the Preakness.)
In the Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet was the 4-5 betting favorite while Victory Gallop was the 9-2 second choice. But unlike Alydar, Victory Gallop defeated his nemesis, winning by a nose on a head-bobbing finish that prevented Real Quiet from joining the short list of Triple Crown champions.
California Chrome does not have a true rival like Affirmed and Real Quiet, but he is looking to accomplish what one was able to do and what one came oh- so-close in pulling off.
All three colts – Affirmed, Real Quiet and California Chrome – prepped for the Triple Crown in California.
Affirmed won all four of his 3-year-old starts – an allowance race, the San Felipe Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Derby. Real Quiet came into the Run for the Roses having not won a race as a 3-year-old, finishing eighth in the Golden Gate Derby as the 11-10 favorite and then running second in both the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby.
California Chrome opened his 2014 campaign with a stellar victory in the California Cup Derby, followed by two more scintillating performances in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. He won all three races by a combined 18 lengths.
Affirmed went on to win the Kentucky Derby by 1 1/2 lengths and the Preakness by a neck. Real Quiet grabbed the Derby by one-half length and the Preakness by 2 1/4 lengths. California Chrome won the first leg of the Triple Crown by 1 3/4 lengths and then the Preakness by 1 1/2 lengths.
Affirmed prevailed over Alydar by a head in what is generally understood as the second-most thrilling Belmont Stakes ever behind Secretariat’s dominating performance. Real Quiet lost the Belmont 20 years later by the aforementioned nose.
Will California Chrome emulate the former and join the list of hallowed champions or will he mirror Real Quiet, who enjoyed a four-length lead in the stretch only to lose by the slimmest of margins?
California Chrome’s running style is more like Affirmed than Real Quiet. Affirmed ran close to the pace if he was not on the lead himself. On the other hand, Real Quiet was more of a middle-of-the-pack horse until the field hit the far turn.
California Chrome should be able to help control the early fractions and dictate how fast the pace will be run, especially if the owners of Social Inclusion decide to race in the Woody Stephens Stakes instead of the Belmont. The only other two horses scheduled to run that have shown any early pace in the past are Samraat and Tonalist.
Don’t forget, Affirmed was on the lead in the Belmont Stakes through a half- mile in 50 seconds and three-quarters in 1:14. Real Quiet had a faster pace to close into (48 3/5 and 1:13 2/5), but while doing so, failed to hold off the charge of Victory Gallop.
PROS AND CONS OF AMERICA’S HORSE
California Chrome has a lot of positives in his corner. He is extremely tractable and has the ability to make more than one move in a given race. In addition, the Art Sherman-trained colt has defeated almost every horse in the Belmont Stakes field.
The chestnut colt has been training just as smartly as he had prior to the Derby and the Preakness. He also gets to wear a nasal strip that he has worn in all of his wins since last December. Speaking of wins, California Chrome has won six consecutive races and is now 8-for-12 lifetime.
In that respect, he is closer to Affirmed than Real Quiet as the former came into the Belmont Stakes on a seven-race win streak. The latter had won only two races prior to the Kentucky Derby.
Nevertheless, California Chrome’s 2-year-old season resembled Real Quiet’s more so than Affirmed’s. The 2014 Derby-Preakness winner finished 2013 with just three victories in seven career starts. Real Quiet was 2-for-9 as a 2- year-old while Affirmed was 7-for-9, with both losses coming to Alydar.
The one possible negative in California Chrome’s arsenal is his pedigree. He was able to last the 1 1/4 (and 1 3/16) miles in the Kentucky Derby (and Preakness), but 1 1/2 miles in a completely different animal. That is why the Belmont Stakes is the most difficult of all three Triple Crown races.
A lot had been talked about concerning California Chrome’s sire, Lucky Pulpit, and his inability to produce a long-distance stayer. Lucky Pulpit, himself, had never won past 5 1/2 furlongs and California Chrome’s dam, Love the Chase, did not win (or even run) over one mile.
However, Lucky Pulpit’s dam, Lucky Soph, is a half-sister to Unbridled’s Song. the sire of Will Take Charge and Eight Belles, and California Chrome’s dam side is very impressive if one goes back four or five generations. Back there, the likes of Danzig, Numbered Account, Sir Ivor, Vaguely Noble and Cascapedia can be found.
Given that last statement, it appears California Chrome should be able to last the 1 1/2 miles and complete the 12 furlongs faster than the last four Belmont winners – Palace Malice, Union Rags, Ruler On Ice and Drosselmeyer – who ran the race in 2:30 3/5, 2:30 2/5, 2:30 4/5 and 2:31 2/5, respectively.
It is doubtful California Chrome will run anywhere near the 2:26 4/5 it took Affirmed 36 years ago, but he should run faster than the 2:29 Victory Gallop and Real Quiet ran 18 years ago.
It appears California Chrome has more Affirmed in him than Real Quiet, so his chances to win the Belmont are high. But are they high enough to warrant wagering on him at the likely odds of even-money?
FAVORITES AND THE BELMONT STAKES
About this time one year ago, I wrote how recent Belmont Stakes favorites had fared and the results were not too pretty. The last betting choice to win the race was all the way back in 2005 when Afleet Alex crossed the wire seven lengths in front of Andromeda’s Hero.
The second choice has won the Belmont six times since 1993 with Union Rags the last one coming two years ago. An interesting Belmont Stakes fact is that the top two betting favorites have not finished 1-2, respectively, since 1978, the last year the Triple Crown was won.
Could that be an omen for the upcoming “Test of Champions?” There is no doubt California Chrome will be the betting favorite but second choice is up for grabs between Wicked Strong, Ride On Curlin and Tonalist.
Speaking of the three main challengers, I will discuss their chances, as well as the rest of the field, in next week’s column, so stay tuned.