The iconic image of the sport of horse racing in America is the great Secretariat pulling away from his outmatched rivals in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Seizing control of the race during the opening furlong, Secretariat ran his way to Triple Crown glory by running his helpless foes into the ground in quarter mile after quarter mile after quarter mile; by the time he reached the wire the rest of the field was a mere blip in the distance.
The odds of a horse matching Secretariat's final time and margin of victory in the '73 Belmont are "slim to none", but the manner in which he rolled to Triple Crown glory - leading the 1 1/2 mile Belmont from gate to wire* - is not as uncommon as one would initially believe based on the conditions of the race. In fact, of the 11 horses to win the Triple Crown, eight of them won the Belmont by taking command of the race right from the start, including the last four - Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Citation (see chart below). While Secretariat's performance will never be duplicated, winning the Belmont from the front is not an impossible task. And a colt doesn't have to run a historically fast race to win from the front, as evidenced by Seattle Slew in 1977. They simply have to be the best and fittest horse in the field with an ability to grind their opposition down with the passing of each furlong.
*While Secretariat led at every chart call of the race, he actually didn't lead every step from the gate. After the early race shake out, Sham ended up sticking a head in front at various points through the first half mile but was run into submission before the pair hit the halfway mark of the race.
No, I don't actually think California Chrome should go to the lead in the 2014 Belmont Stakes, unless the rest of the field has no desires to show any kind of early speed. But there is something to be said for the best horse - and one with a very high cruising speed - simply going to the front and running the shoes off of the competition. Not only does the horse on the lead get to dictate terms to the rest of the field - a sort of "come and catch me" situation - but running on the lead is a good way to stay clear of traffic, avoid a wide trip, and generally ensure a clean trip around the track. Of course, leading every step of the Belmont requires a horse to grind through a daunting mile and a half journey. So there's that.
California Chrome has never displayed a "need to lead" running style in his career but he can run that way if the situation presents itself, as he did when he won the San Felipe back in March. And since you never want to take a horse out of his element, nothing good could come from attempting to alter a colt's running style from his preferred trip. If, however, the other potential speed horses were to fail to get to the front early, like Social Inclusion in the Preakness, perhaps Victor Espinoza takes what the field gives him.
I suppose it comes down to a choose your poison situation for a horse like California Chrome: do you take the stalking trip you had for the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, knowing the rest of the field will likely apply pressure to your outside, inside, and all other sides at various point of the race - a sort of "Smarty Jones Scenario"? Or do you perhaps take the race to the rest of the field, dictating your own terms instead of the other way around? (Which could also end up being the Smarty Jones Scenario*.) Additionally, looking at the potential Belmont field, we are not guaranteed to have a lot of horses that want to go to the lead standing in the starting gate.
Early speed colt Social Inclusion is no lock for the Belmont; Todd Pletcher is still considering the seven panel Woody Stephens instead of the Belmont. And while Tonalist controlled the Peter Pan from the start, that effort came over a sloppy and sealed main track; that was the only time in his four race career when he's raced on the lead. After that we're really only left with Samraat as the last horse that prefers to run up front early.
As much as I don't think the connections of California Chrome will adopt a "go to the lead" strategy for the Belmont, I could certainly see the race unfolding where the Derby and Preakness winner finds himself out front after the first quarter mile.
*The Smarty Jones Belmont Stakes is probably an apt comparison race to look at because, in many ways, that race was the poster child of how to attack a colt trying to win the Triple Crown. Smarty initially tried to stalk the pace but by the time the field was on the backstretch, he went to the front after taking shot after shot from his rivals. Much is made of Jerry Bailey and Eddington applying pressure to Smarty Jones on the backstretch, but how about Rock Hard Ten going to the lead and then coming back to provide pressure from the inside? Smarty Jones chance to win the Belmont was to open up as big of a lead as possible and make his rivals come get him in deep stretch. It almost worked if not for the early pressure that caused him to go much too fast through the first mile of the race - 1:35.40 for the mile.
Below is a summary of the last ten Triple Crown winning Belmont Stakes; "Early pace" is the leader after a mile (and finished); winner is noted with their running position after a mile; also included: the favorite's finish and odds, field size, margin of victory, and final time. I excluded Sir Barton's Belmont victory as it occurred when the race was run at a 1 3/8 miles but, if you're curious, the first Triple Crown winner did not go gate to wire (he sat second through much of the race) and he faced a field of just two rivals.
Belmont charts via BelmontStakes.com. And and all errors the result of my typos.
|Year||Early Pace (Finish)||Winner (Mile)||Favorite||Field||Margin||Time|
|1978||Affirmed (1st)||Affirmed (1st)||Affirmed (1st, 3/5)||5||hd||2:26.80|
|1977||Seattle Slew (1st)||Seattle Slew (1st)||Seattle Slew (1st, 2/5)||8||4||2:29.60|
|1973||Secretariat (1st)||Secretariat (1st)||Secretariat (1st, 1/10)||5||31||2:24.00|
|1948||Citation (1st)||Citation (1st)||Citation (1st, 1/5)||8||8||2:28.20|
|1946||Hampden (4th)||Assault (4th)||Assault (1st, 7/5)||7||3||2:30.80|
|1943||Count Fleet (1st)||Count Fleet (1st)||Count Fleet (1st, 1/20)||3||25||2:28.20|
|1941||Whirlaway (1st)||Whirlaway (1st)||Whirlaway (1st, 1/5)||4||1 1/2||2:31.00|
|1937||War Admiral (1st)||War Admiral (1st)||War Admiral (1st, 4/5)||7||3||2:28.60|
|1935||Cold Shoulder (4th)||Omaha (4th)||Omaha (1st, 4/5)||5||1 1/2||2:30.60|
|1930||Gallant Fox (1st)||Gallant Fox (1st)||Gallant Fox (1st, 8/5)||4||3||2:31.60|
A lot of these Triple Crown winning gate-to-wire Belmont's are the result of small field sizes; as we see every day within this sport, it's much easier for a horse to control a race from start to finish, regardless of the distance, when there are very few horses available to challenge the leader. Big fields typically contain a good amount of cheap speed which negates the ability of a horse to seize command of the race and lull the field to sleep. But those small fields of five or six are tailor made for a horse to lead them all the way around the track.
On its face, the sheer length of the mile and a half Belmont Stakes is enough to turn away most connections from sending the best horse to the front in the hopes of stealing the race on the front-end. But wiring the Belmont isn't unheard of, and you don't have to be named Secretariat to do it - as Da' Tara, Point Given, and Hansel have demonstrated since 1990. Like with many things in horse racing, it all comes down to whether or not the horse is good enough.
For a perspective on the last 20+ years of Belmont Stakes winners, below is a summary of the pace horse at the mile marker (and finish), winner (with position after a mile), and performance of the favorite* at the Belmont Stakes since 1990.
*Bob and John was the favorite in 2006? I completely forgot about that year; certainly not a record setting Belmont field.
|Year||Early Pace (Finish)||Winner (Mile)||Favorite|
|2013||Oxbow (3nd)||Palace Malice (3rd)||Orb (3rd, 2/1)|
|2012||Paynter (2nd)||Union Rags (3rd)||Dullahan (7th, 5/2)|
|2011||Shackleford (5th)||Ruler On Ice (3nd)||Animal Kingdom (6th, 5/2)|
|2010||First Dude (3rd)||Drosselmeyer (5th)||Ice Box (9th, 8/5)|
|2009||Dunkirk (2nd)||Summer Bird (9th)||Mine That Bird (3rd, 6/5)|
|2008||Da' Tara (1st)||Da' Tara (1st)||Big Brown (9th, 2/5)|
|2007||CP West (5th)||Rags to Riches (5th)||Curlin (2nd, 6/5)|
|2006||Bob and John (8th)||Jazil (7th)||Bob and John (8th, 9/2)|
|2005||Pinpoint (11th)||Afleet Alex (8th)||Afleet Alex (1st, 6/5)|
|2004||Smarty Jones (2nd)||Birdstone (4th)||Smarty Jones (2nd, 2/5)|
|2003||Funny Cide (3rd)||Empire Maker (2nd)||Funny Cide (3rd, Even)|
|2002||Medaglia d'Oro (2nd)||Sarave (4th)||War Emblem (8th, 7/5)|
|2001||Point Given (1st)||Point Given (1st)||Point Given (1st, 7/5)|
|2000||Hugh Hefner (8th)||Commendable (2nd)||Aptitude (2nd, 9/5)|
|1999||Silverbulletday (7th)||Lemon Drop Kid (8th)||Charismatic (3rd, 7/5)|
|1998||Chilito (6th)||Victory Gallop (9th)||Real Quiet (2nd, 4/5)|
|1997||Wild Rush (6th)||Touch Gold (4th)||Silver Charm (2nd, Even)|
|1996||Natural Selection (7th)||Editor's Note (5th)||Cavonnier (14th, 3/1)|
|1995||Star Standard (2nd)||Thunder Gulch (2nd)||Thunder Gulch (1st, 7/5)|
|1994||Go For Gin (2nd)||Tabasco Cat (3rd)||Strodes Creek (3rd, 7/5)|
|1993||Antrim Rd. (9th)||Colonial Affair (5th)||Prairie Bayou (13th, 5/2)|
|1992||Casual Lies (5th)||A.P. Indy (4th)||A.P. Indy (1st, 6/5)|
|1991||Hansel (1st)||Hansel (1st)||Strike the Gold (2nd, 2/1)|
|1990||Thirty Six Red (2nd)||Go And Go (3rd)||Unbridled (4th, 6/5)|