California Chrome is poised to make horse racing history tomorrow at the Belmont Stakes (6:52 PM ET, NBC), as he looks to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, following his reasonably comfortable wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Ten horses have a chance to upend the dream tomorrow, so let’s run through the challengers to California Chrome.
The Belmont Stakes doesn’t have the same reputation as the Kentucky Derby when it comes to longshots and big payouts. The Belmont’s field is little more than half the size of the 20-horse Derby, and in most years, when there’s not a Triple Crown at stake, the general sports public has lost interest in horse racing by the time the Crown’s third jewel goes on the line.
But that doesn’t mean longshots don’t win—in fact, it’s the norm. If we just keep it at the last five years, four winners have paid out at a price better than $20 based on a two-dollar bet. That includes Ruler On Ice and his $51.50 price tag in 2011. The long race—it’s a mile and a half, longer than pretty much every major race anywhere in the country—and the fact that the better-known horses are tired by this point in the Triple Crown serves to create some unpredictability.
All of which is to say it’s worth knowing about the challengers. History tells us they have a real chance, and if you’re interested in betting the race, they drive up the prices on the exacta and trifecta, even if California Chrome should win.
THE PRIME CHALLENGERS
Wicked Strong (6-1): The horse named in honor of the Boston Marathon victims won the Wood Memorial here on the New York circuit (though it runs at Aqueduct, not Belmont Park) and he finished a strong fourth at the Kentucky Derby, his last trip to the post.
Tonalist (8-1): This is one of several horses making their first appearance at a Triple Crown race, and Tonalist just won the Peter Pan Stakes, also at Belmont Park last month. He’s ridden by Joel Rosario, one of the best jockeys in the country, though Rosario does most of his work in the west.
THE DARK HORSES
Ride On Curlin (12-1): If you’re looking for an edge at jockey, look no further than John Velazquez aboard Ride On Curlin. His recent Belmont Stakes record—second in 2009 (Dunkirk), second in 2010 (Fly Down) and a win in 2012 (Union Rags). None of the major jockeys have as strong a record at the Belmont Stakes as Velazquez, and New York is his natural circuit.
Commanding Curve (15-1): A limited resume gave little indication that he would come out of nowhere to finish second at the Kentucky Derby, drive up the price on the exacta, and likely result in a lot of people tearing up their exotic bets.
THE 20-1 SHOTS
Samraat: A great record on the New York circuit started with a win in the Damon Runyon Stakes. I just have to stop here to say that I love the fact we live in a world where Damon Runyon has a race named after him—this is the man who wrote a compilation of short stories celebrating gangsters and gambling and watched it turn into the Marlon Brando/Frank Sinatra classic Guys And Dolls. If you haven’t seen the movie, rent it this weekend.
Back to Samraat, he also won the Gotham Stakes and finished second to Wicked Strong at the Wood. He’s fifth-place finish at the Kentucky Derby was certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Medal Count: He ran a respectable eighth at the Kentucky Derby, although his prior record was, relatively speaking, pretty thin. Medal Count finished second at the Blue Grass Stakes, a key Derby prep, but that’s about it.
Commissioner: Another good New York jockey, Javier Castellano, one of the nation’s best trainers in Todd Pletcher, and another horse who ran well at the Peter Pan, finishing second to Tonalist.
General a Rod: What are the chances anyone named “A Rod” could be cheered in New York these days? He ran third at the Florida Derby, arguably the best Kentucky Derby prep race, though finished 11th at Churchill Downs. A fourth-place finish at the Preakness increases his credibility. Rosie Napravnik will ride him on Saturday, as she continues her quest to be the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.
THE 30-1 LONGSHOTS
Matterhorn: We know very little about him, though he is trained by Pletcher.
Matuszak: Another horse where there’s not much to go on, although Mike Smith being in the saddle might make him worth a small saver bet if you’re into that (like throw a buck on him in addition to your standard 1-2-3 selections). Smith won the Belmont Stakes aboard Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice a year ago.
WILL CALIFORNIA CHROME DO IT?
That’s the million-dollar question—or the $1.5 million question, as that’s the size of the purse at the Belmont Stakes. I’m pulling for him and I’m going to pick him. The main reason I believe California Chrome is different from previous Triple Crown hopefuls is that I was impressed with the way he pulled away from the field at the Kentucky Derby.
As he created separation down the stretch at Churchill Downs, all I could think was “he can win the Belmont”, with its long stretch run. When California Chrome survived the Preakness, the shortest of the three Triple Crown races, there was never a doubt who I would pick to win.
But this is a good field he’s going to have to beat. I’m definitely targeting Ride On Curlin as the best challenger—the record of Velazquez at the Belmont is too good to ignore. I’ll take Wicked Strong third, and throw a small saver bet on Matuszak.
If I were at a betting window, this is how my ticket would look…
- California Chrome
- Ride On Curlin
- Wicked Strong
*$12 for an exacta box
*$12 for a trifecta box
The principle behind “boxing” the horses is that so long is that order of finish does not matter, so long as the top two (in the case of the exacta) are in the box, and if these horses are the top three, I win the trifecta regardless of the order.
California Chrome is 3-5, and I don’t feel that strongly about him winning the race to bet at those odds. That’s why a wagering plan would focus on the exotics and ignore the win bet. But I would follow the suggestion from above and throw a buck on Mike Smith and Matuszak.
The challengers to California Chrome are a strong group. Be ready for a real race, not a coronation, early tomorrow evening.