2014 Belmont Stakes Contenders: California Chrome

Al Bello

Seven months ago California Chrome was finishing sixth in a Cal-bred stakes race at Santa Anita. Saturday at the Belmont Stakes he'll attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.


California Chrome

Calchrome_medium

Trainer: Art Sherman
Jockey: Victor Espinoza
Sire: Lucky Pulpit
Damsire: Not for Love (Love the Chase)

Record: 12-8-1-0
Earnings: $3,452,650

Notable Races: G1-Preakness (1st); G1-Kentucky Derby (1st); G1-Santa Anita Derby (1st); G2-San Felipe (1st); Cal Cup Derby (1st); King Glorious Stakes (1st); Golden State Juvenile (6th); G1-Del Mar Futurity (6th)

Strengths

Beginning with his victory in the King Glorious Stakes on the final day in the history of Hollywood Park, California Chrome has been nearly flawless in his on track performances. A six race win streak with open length victories in the G2-San Felipe and G1-Santa Anita Derby, along with strong performances in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, has put the Cal-bred foaled by a $8,000 mare in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Perhaps the most impressive part of California Chrome's success is the consistency in performance from race to race. The blueprint for victory is fairly simple from Chrome: break alertly, use his high cruising speed to secure a forward position, cruise up on the leaders on the far turn, and then sprint away from his rivals at the top of the stretch forcing the rest of the field to dig deep to run him down at the wire. And while his victories in the Derby and the Preakness saw his final margin of victory whittled down from open lengths to a length and a half at the wire, I never got the feeling that either Commanding Curve or Ride on Curlin were going to catch him in either of those two races.

California Chrome's biggest asset is that high cruising speed that allows him to be forwardly placed without a lot of urging or encouragement from his rider. He can click off solid early fractions, put away the speed on the far turn and still have enough left in the tank to hold off the closers, and that's a great combination of attributes for a race horse to possess.

Recently, we've talked a lot about the Triple Crown disappointments of the past, and of the great names in our sport's history that have failed on the big stage in Elmont, New York. I'm not sure where California Chrome lands if we attempt to compare him to some of the best three-year-old colts from the last 35 years. What I do know is California Chrome is clearly the best three-year-old colt in 2014. Whether that's enough to see him to victory in the Belmont Stakes remains to be seen. But at the bare minimum, Calfornia Chrome has proved himself to be a worthy champion. All that's left to do is to prove he can be a historical champion, as well.

Questions

I won't type "does he want the distance?" as a potential weakness or question for California Chrome because, in reality, none of the colts in the Belmont really want the distance. No breeder in the United States is actively trying to produce horses that want to run at mile and a half on the dirt. Some produce horses with a greater emphasis on stamina than on speed but, overall, there's no reason at all to actively try and produce a horse that excels at a mile and a half on dirt when there's only one Grade 1 race with those conditions in the entire country.

To win the Belmont and the Triple Crown, California Chrome needs to avoid being Smarty Jones'd; he's going to receive pressure from his rivals during the early and middle parts of the race and he absolutely can't get head-strong or  over-eager if he's to prevail. Jockey Victor Espinoza has to get this colt into a comfortable rhythm on the backstretch and then he needs to wait as long as he can before asking the Derby and Preakness winner for his final kick towards the finish line.

I don't think where this colt is placed during the race is as important as how he's running in the early and middle stages. California Chrome has to relax - whether he's on the lead, stalking the pace, or sitting more towards the middle of the pack - if he's to end the Triple Crown drought.

Final Thoughts

Seven months ago, California Chrome finished sixth in the Golden State Juvenile for California-breds at Santa Anita. Now, he's on the cusp of completing the first Triple Crown sweep in three-and-a-half decades. Who woulda predicted that last November?

On paper, California Chrome is the best horse in the Belmont field. Visually, California Chrome is the most impressive three-year-old colt this season. But the Belmont is not run on paper, and Chrome's prior winning efforts mean little in the oddity of American racing that is the Belmont Stakes. He may be the best horse in the field but he's no guarantee to win; California Chrome will need to bring a top-level effort to etch his name into the history books.

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