Belmont Stakes 2014: Triple Crown Glory Awaits California Chrome

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

A bunch of random thoughts as we move past the Preakness and on to the Belmont Stakes.

I spent Preakness day out at Emerald Downs watching California Chrome nap the second leg of a Triple Crown, followed by a Sunday helping a friend move, and now a Monday where I've come down with a nasty flu. That's called a trifecta. Or perhaps diminishing returns.

Here are some utterly random thoughts on Saturday's racing action, along with comments on some of the news items that popped up during Preakness week.

  • Let's start wit the race itself - a wonderful performance by California Chrome in a race that was, for all intents and purposes, over when Victor Espinoza was able to guide Chrome about three paths off the rail, sitting in third, just a couple lengths behind the speed before hitting the first turn. He was in the absolute perfect position for the stalking trip from the gods. And that's exactly what he got.
  • A huge effort from Ride On Curlin after his rough trip in the Derby; he was over six lengths clear of Social Inclusion at the wire. He ran his typical Ride On Curlin kind of race: all around solid, even if not a winning one. If he ends up running in the Belmont (and all indications are that his connections are going to go that direction), he'll definitely have a big shot to spoil the California Chrome party.
  • Immediately following the race the whole NYRA/Nasal Strip issue started to stir but, thankfully, that's in the past after the stewards ruled that horses will be allowed to use nasal strips. I was not looking forward to three weeks of debating a nasal strip. California Chrome will be allowed to wear the same equipment that he's worn over the past half year, as will every other horse in the field, should they so choose. That's fine by me.
  • Ria Antonia had no business running in the Preakness. None at all. I wrote that before the race and I'll write it again now: there is nothing in this filly's past performances to suggest she was anywhere near good enough to compete against that field, let alone California Chrome. Sure, anything can happen, but that's probably not the best mantra when choosing where to enter a horse.

    It's one thing to "take a shot". It's a completely different thing to put a horse in a race way above her ability.

    For those that didn't look at the chart, Ria Antonia finished last, ten lengths back of the 9th place horse, Bayern.
  • That was a good morning line by the Preakness odds maker: California Chrome (3/5 to 1/2), Social Inclusion (5/1 to 5.30/1), and Ride On Curlin (10/1 to 10.30/1) all went off right around their initial prices with only minor variations. The long shots were still screwed up a bit (really, Ria Antonia at 19/1? She should have been 100/1), but the top part of the line was solid.
  • Speaking of Bayern, as others have noted, he couldn't have received a worse trip. "Bobbled" out of the gate, "pinched back", "bumped", "contact", "went wide" - that's some nice keywords in the trip notes.
  • Pimlico doesn't have Trakus but we can still look at the internal based on the old fashioned clockings from the teletimer (as far as I know, Pimlico doesn't have an embargo on track times like Churchill Downs). Here are the running and internal splits from the Preakness:

    Distance Fractions Internal
    1/4: 23.56 23.56
    1/2: 46.85 23.29
    3/4: 1:11.06 24.21
    Mile: 1:35.65 24.59
    Finish: 1:54.84 19.19

  • NBC didn't show the Dixie because the Dixie does not actually exist in the eyes of NBC.

    Some folks within the industry doesn't think it's a big deal because, essentially, the general TV viewing public watching the Preakness (or the Derby or the Belmont) doesn't care and NBC gets high ratings regardless. But here's the rub: how have those ratings helped handle, if at all?

    What do you think is a better way to get people interesting in betting on racing: spending a two-hour broadcast where you only show a single, two minute long race. Or where you actually ADVERTISE THE WHOLE SPORT. It's one of the three times a year where people are actually watching and we spend it with fluff programing. And then a chunk of the industry says, "eh, no big deal; ratings will still be good."

    The Dixie is a 100 second race - do we really believe that showing that race will cause some kind of ratings collapse for NBC; are the cooking and fashion segments driving the show?

    Talk to me about the record ratings at the end of the season when we are looking at another year of stagnated handle and parimutuel growth.

    Forest. Trees.
  • You've probably read the post-race comments from Chrome's part-owner, Steve Coburn, ripping into Churchill Downs for the treatment their party received during the Derby. At this point I can't come to any other conclusion other than "Churchill Downs is a mess".

    If you're counting at home, here's the bad press launched at Churchill over the past month:

    Churchill Downs raises takeout to the maximum level allowed under Kentucky law. Strike 1.

    The Ron Turcotte affair where Churchill denied him a disabled parking pass. The guy's a Triple Crown winning jockey and has been in wheel chair for over 30 years and you can't get him a parking pass? Strike 2.

    Fox Hill Farms publishes on their website an account of the shabby treatment they've received from Churchill management. Strike 3.

    Trainer Graham Motion, about as upstanding a trainer as you can find in this game (and not one to engage in hyperbole), calls out Churchill on Twitter. Strike 4.

    Then, in what can only be described as a really odd story, CD overpays Wes Welker by $14,000 due to, ahem, an error with the tote machine that CD claims happens once every three years. Then they send Welker (or one of his associates) a letter asking for the money back (even though a CD spokesman stated later they didn't expect to be repaid). As Welker stats later, if it was an underpayment I'm suuuuuuuurrrrrreeee CD would have tracked down the individual and gave him his extra $14k, right?

    By the way, I love how this story unfolded; Welker wins money, gets overpaid by CD, CD sends letter asking for the money back, story gains attention in the media, CD spokesperson comes out and says, "yeah, we didn't really expect to get the money back." Nice backpedaling.

    If you didn't expect to get the money back, why did you write in your letter "You may send a check to Churchill Downs in the enclosed envelope"? Strike 5 in the land of bad PR.

    And then the Coburn comments at the Preakness. Strike 6.

    Oh, and they apparently don't want anyone to see their precious Trakus data for races run at their track. Cause why should the racing public get any clue as to how fast or far horses run in the biggest race in America when the track in question utilizes a more accurate timing technology?

    That's a pretty good run of bad press over a three to four week period.

With the Derby and Preakness out of the way it's time to turn to the final jewel of the Triple Crown and California Chrome's quest for the first sweep since 1978.

Two years ago we really didn't get the full Triple Crown experience since I'll Have Another was scratched the day prior, leaving us with the utterly unsatisfying rain on the parade. As a result, I think a lot of racing fans will be a bit more on edge the next three weeks, some simply hoping Chrome makes the race, instead of some fluky event knocking him out along the way.

Whatever the outcome in three weeks, I sincerely hope the field for this year's Belmont can put on a good show for everyone involved.

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