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Belmont Stakes 2014: California Chrome vs. history

We've reached the end of the 2014 Triple Crown. It's time to race.

Rob Carr

I've avoided most of the last three weeks of Triple Crown/Belmont Stakes/California Chrome overload - I read a few articles on the works here and there but, for the most part, I simply waited until the early PPs came out to take a look at the field and develop some handicapping thoughts. Truth be told, the PPs provide scant clues as to what is going to take place at Belmont on Saturday afternoon. I find this to be the case more and more with the Triple Crown races; we've looked at the form and past performances of these colts so much that we pretty much know what we're going to get, unless we don't.

On paper, California Chrome is the best colt in the Belmont Stakes field, but that paper is worth very little this week. By the time we get to the Belmont the table, for the most part, is re-set. Whatever California Chrome accomplished in Kentucky and Maryland, and even in California, is greatly minimized by the oddity that is the Belmont Stakes. A mile and a half on dirt - the only race in America with those conditions that carries a Grade 1 rating - the Belmont is the ultimate (and rare) test of racing in this country.

I've written before that I don't know if California Chrome is a historic horse; I'm not sure how he measures up against prior winners of the Triple Crown or any of the other colts to attempt the sweep over the last three and a half decades. I tend to think of him in a similar way that I thought of Smarty Jones at the end of his run to glory - a horse that's clearly the best of his crop but probably has some limitations that I continue to wonder if they'll pop up and cause him to lose a race. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is whether or not Chrome beat the horses that lined up to face him each time he walked on the track. So far this Triple Crown season, he's done just that.

Prior to the Derby I was at my local watering hole when talk turned to Derby favorite and whether I thought California Chrome would win. I believe my response to the question was "If he does, I don't think we'll see a Triple Crown winner because I just don't think he'll want any part of a mile and a half."

At that point I had my concerns as to whether or not Chrome would be at his best at a mile and a quarter (let alone a mile and a half) and a lot of that had to do with his pedigree - there just wasn't a lot to go on. Sure, if we look several generations back in his bloodlines we find some interesting names, but as Tribe has noted in his pedigree profiles - that's typically not the best indicator for success. And as Tribe wrote in his California Chrome pedigree piece:

I'm just going to say that sometimes you get lucky.

In this game, sometimes that's all you need to be - lucky.

Going into the Derby my feeling on California Chrome was divided between "he appears to be the best three-year-old colt in the crop" but "I haven't a clue if he really wants a lot more distance." Of course, with the distance question, we can say the same thing about many, many horses in today's game once the races stretch out past a mile and an eighth.

Chrome certainly proved me wrong as not only did he get the Derby distance but he was visually impressive in the process (even if the timer wasn't as kind, for various reasons). With the Derby out of the way, the Preakness was there for taking; we haven't had any problems of Derby horses coming back and winning the Preakness in the last 36 years and they seem, many times, to improve off their Derby wins when running at Old Hill Top. Chrome took care of business in Maryland and rolled into New York, like so many of the colts that came before him, with a chance to make history.

After success at Pimlico, then the question became "will California Chrome win the Belmont?" That's a much more difficult question than "can California Chrome win the Belmont?"

I think most of us would agree that he can win, but we're greatly unsure if he will win. And after 36 years, we should be unsure.

The comments of trainers, jockeys, and anyone else, does little to sway me in either direction as to whether Chrome will win on Saturday. At this level of the sport, the horses almost always look good, strong and ready to run. It's like when I go into the paddock prior to a Breeders' Cup race - if I'm simply looking for a horse that looks good, well hell, that eliminates, uh, zero. On the other hand, when I'm in the paddock for a $2,500 N2L event, things look a bit different.

I've yet to read a comment from any connection prior to a race where they admit, "yeah, this colt looks terrible on the track; he's got no shot." It doesn't matter whether the horse is 1/5 or 500/1, everyone wants to believe their horse is ready. (Although I did appreciate the candid response from Jerry Bailey after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic on Arcangues when he essentially shrugged his shoulders and said, "heck if I know how he won!".)

California Chrome might be ready to run big in the Belmont and cruise to the Triple Crown. Or maybe he won't. We won't know - and the connections also won't know - until he sets foot on the main track at Big Sandy and breaks from the gate. And because of that higher level of uncertainty that I have, my thoughts on betting this race are tepid, to say the least.

As much as I would like to see California Chrome win the Belmont, I want nothing of his 3/5, 2/5 or whatever-they-will-be odds. In making my own line for the Belmont I penciled Chrome in right around 3/1 to 5/2 - essentially, if they ran the Belmont 100 times, I think Chrome would win somewhere around 25 to 30 times. Certainly the favorite, no way an odds-on favorite. I don't see him winning 60, 70 or 80 times out of a 100, which is where his odds are likely to settle by post time. And because of that, because his price is so out of line from where I see his actually chances, there probably isn't a Belmont Stakes bet that involves Chrome that I'm interested in making.

My wagering on the Belmont Stakes will likely be light - a few small plays on non-Chrome results. If he wins, then we have a Triple Crown winner and a worthy champion (and I do believe he is worthy). If he loses, perhaps I can get a piece of what will likely be boxcar payouts.

And regardless of what occurs at Belmont Park on Saturday afternoon, we'll press forward handicapping and watching races as long as they keep running.