By Jeff Frank, The Sports Analyst
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – California Chrome is the 3-5 morning line favorite to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history. However, the last seven odds-on Belmont Stakes favorites have failed to win and complete the magnificent feat.
One has to go all the way back to 1978 when Affirmed held off Alydar at 3-5 to find the last odds-on betting choice to grab hold of the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. In fact, Affirmed was the fourth straight odds-on winner following the footsteps of Seattle Slew (2-5), Bold Forbes (4-5) and Secretariat (1-9).
Between the years 1958 and 1971, only one of eight odds-on betting favorites in the Belmont came home on top – Damascus (4-5) in 1967. Finally, half of the first 14 odds-on choices crossed the wire first. Overall, this type of favorite holds just 12 victories in 33 overall starts.
It must be mentioned that there were two odds-on choices in 1957. Gallant Man (19-20) crossed the wire first while Bold Ruler (17-20) finished third.
The bottom line is there have been only 12 winners out of 32 races since mutuels began in New York in 1940. That’s a 37.5 percent winning percentage. Moreover, of the 19 horses in line for the Triple Crown sweep, just six came home victorious. That amounts to a 33 percent winning percentage.
Five of the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winners ran second in the Belmont Stakes with Real Quiet (4-5 in 1998) coming the closest, losing by a nose to Victory Gallop. The four others were Pensive (1-2 in 1944), Tim Tam (3-20 in 1958), Sunday Silence (4-5 in 1989) and Smarty Jones (2-5 in 2004).
Three more finished third – Northern Dancer (4-5 in 1964), Spectacular Bid (1-5 in 1979) and Pleasant Colony (4-5 in 1981). Five finished off the board, including Big Brown (2008) – the last horse vying for the Triple Crown that ran in the Belmont (I’ll Have Another in 2012 was injured and did not race in the final leg).
There also is another key factor that plays against California Chrome and that is field size. The six Triple Crown winners between 1941 and 1978 won the Belmont Stakes against a combined 27 other horses, which amounts to an average of 3.5 horses per race. The 13 horses that failed to win the Triple Crown had 110 challengers, which means those colts ran against an average of 8.5 horses per race.
This year, the Belmont Stakes has a field of 11, which ties for the second- most entrants behind the 1971 edition when Canonero II finished fourth at 3-5. The 1966, 1981 and 1998 renewals also had 10 other horses competing against odds-on Derby-Preakness winners Kauai King, Pleasant Colony and Real Quiet, respectively. All three of those horses lost the Belmont Stakes.
California Chrome is by far the most talented member of this 3-year-old crop. He owns tremendous tactical speed, which should place him on or just off the early lead. Only Samraat and Tonalist, and to a less extent, General a Rod, have decent gate speed, so jockey Victor Espinoza will not have much of a crowd in front of him. We will see if the colt is good enough to overcome what so many have failed to accomplish over the last 36 years.
There are two horses that have no business being in the race – Matterhorn and Matuszak. The former has not won since last November while the latter hasn’t won since September.
Three other colts have better bodies of work than that pair but should still finish off the board. They are General a Rod, Commissioner and Samraat.
General a Rod has the pedigree to be successful at the 1 1/2-mile distance, but he sure does not run like it. It is true he had a terrible trip in the Preakness, but don’t look for any improvement from a horse that might not have been entered in the Belmont if his stablemate, Intense Holiday, did not come down with an injury.
Commissioner showed more speed in the Peter Pan than he ever had before, but that may have occurred due to the sloppy Belmont surface that day. An argument could be made that a horse not expected to vie for the early lead could jump up and do so and this colt might be the one. Either on the pace or off, don’t expect the Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-old to be around when the true running begins.
Samraat ran a very good fifth in the Kentucky Derby – his second straight loss after opening with five wins in his first five outings. His breeding does not suggest he will appreciate the added distance, so it is best to side with others.
Commanding Curve comes into the Belmont Stakes off a second-place finish to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby. He is one of four horses in the field to have run in the Derby and pass the Preakness. Commanding Curve also had the easiest of trips in the first leg of the Triple Crown, unlike a few others entered in the Belmont. The son of Master Command has been training well and certainly is a horse to use in the exotics. However, he is doubtful to cross the wire first.
Ride On Curlin represents the closest finisher to California Chrome considering the latter has strung together six consecutive victories. Nevertheless, the Belmont Stakes will be Ride On Curlin’s fourth race in the last eight weeks and that might be too much, especially on the heels of a 1 1/2-mile event.
THE FINAL FOUR
Filling out the final spot in the superfecta will be Tonalist. The Peter Pan winner has done nothing wrong as a 3-year-old, winning two of three starts with a second to Florida Derby winner Constitution in his only other race – an allowance event on a speed-favoring Gulfstream Park track.
Three main reasons why he won’t hit the board are: 1. his lack of experience (four career races), 2. he will be on the pace and will use too much energy trying to square off with California Chrome, and 3. breaking from the No. 11 post position will make for a longer trip into the first turn.
Medal Count ran a very good eighth in the Kentucky Derby considering Danza cut him off approaching the eighth-pole. His momentum was completely stopped and he still finished less than two lengths from finishing fourth.
The Dale Romans-trained son of Dynaformer not only should love the 12 furlongs, but he also has been working well at Churchill Downs. Finally, he has had five weeks off after racing three times in a month.
That leaves California Chrome and Wicked Strong as the two most probable winners. Not surprisingly, they are the top two choices on the morning line.
Wicked Strong has been working out on the Belmont training track, but he is one of only three horses in the field with a win over the main track (Samraat and Tonalist are the other two).
The fourth-place Derby finisher broke poorly from the far outside post position on the first Saturday in May and was caught very wide going into the first turn. He eventually closed from 14th to a fourth-place finish at the wire. A better trip is expected on Saturday.
It’s been 36 years since Affirmed last won the last Triple Crown. Among the horses that have failed have been speed types (Smarty Jones, War Emblem and Sunday Silence), stalkers (Big Brown, Funny Cide, Silver Charm and Spectacular Bid), middle movers (Real Quiet and Charismatic) and closers (Pleasant Colony and Alysheba).
California Chrome falls into the first category. If the pace is slow, he might be on the lead. If not, look for him to sit a couple lengths off, as he did in the first two Triple Crown races. A victory on Saturday will put to rest all the talk of having to alter either the distances or the span of time in between the three races. A loss and the discussions will ignite once again.
Will he win? That is the million dollar question. Is he a good bet to cross the wire first at odds-on? History says no.
THE BELMONT WAGER
This will be a winning season regardless of what happens since the $50 wager on the California Chrome-Ride On Curlin exacta came through for a cool $455 return.
With a mythical $100 Belmont Stakes wager, bet $35 on a Wicked Strong- California Chrome exacta and $30 the other way. In addition, bet $15 on a California Chrome-Medal Count exacta and $10 the other way. And just in case the favorite fails to fire, use Wicked Strong and Medal Count in a $5 exacta box.
2014 BELMONT STAKES ODDS (as of 4:00pm)
1. Medal Count (20-1)
2. California Chrome (2-5; morning line was 3-5)
3. Matterhorn (30-1)
4. Commanding Curve (15-1)
5. Ride On Curlin (12-1)
6. Matuszak (50-1; morning line was 30-1)
7. Samraat (20-1)
8. Commissioner (30-1; morning line was 20-1)
9. Wicked Strong (10-1; morning line was 6-1)
10. General a Rod (30-1; morning line was 20-1)
11. Tonalist (8-1)