However you feel about California Chrome (and let’s face it, emotions are running hot right about now), in handicapping this race, you must move beyond whatever rooting interest you have and stick to the basics.
Always taking into account the exceptional distance of this race, what are the strengths and weaknesses of each of the entrants? What has to happen for each of them to win, and how likely are things to play out in any of those ways? And, considering whom they have to beat here, what price would you take on that proposition? Finally, even if things break the right way, are they even good enough to beat a horse who, to this point, has proven to be better than almost all of them at least once already?
A look at Pace Projector before we hit the individual contenders shows California Chrome (#2) being part of the pace, and indicates that he may be in a favorable situation up there.
We have no real argument with that view of the race, but will point out that TimeformUS figure-making guru Craig Milkowski has posted a piece to the TimeformUS website that can help us to understand how this race is generally run, noting there that the Belmont Stakes hasn’t been very kind to speed-types recently and is not a race that is generally stolen on the front end.
Still, it’s a good time to stop and compare your view of the race to Pace Projector’s, and to entertain the possibility that the other horses likely to be forwardly placed here, Samraat and General A Rod, may not be inclined to take the running to California Chrome too hard early.
Now, on to a horse-by-horse analysis of the entrants:
Medal Count (#1, 20-1 Morning Line) is one of four entered here who finished behind California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby, and then elected to bypass the Preakness to meet up with him again here–that’s Triple Crown Campaign Management 101 these days, folks. Seven times since 2000, a horse who skipped the Preakness after losing in the Derby has returned to win this race, so it’s a difficult game plan to argue with. But we still don’t like it, traditionalists that we are. Anyway, Medal Count is a little slow, with a TimeformUS Speed Figure top of just 101. On the other hand, he has improved steadily throughout his career, and earned that top figure in the Derby.
(Note that the fractions/pace figure line under the running positions is set to Pace Figures/Race Leader. Click here to learn how to switch between fractional times and TimeformUS Pace Figures.)
He also had legitimate trouble during the stretch run in Kentucky, when he was badly impeded by a rather carelessly handled Danza. Medal Count wasn’t going to win the Derby, but he would have been closer, and he is one of the horses in here with enough pedigree to suggest that he may not wilt as much as some of the others over this longer trip. To us, he’s an unlikely winner, but a horse that will make the bottom of our tickets.
#2 is California Chrome (3-5), and, let’s face it, at least part of you is rooting for him in this race. Yes, the hype-machine has been turned up to full force for this extremely likable Cal-bred who, if we didn’t know better, we would think had never lost a race before and is unlikely to ever lose again. He has gone from strength to strength during this current six-race tear, and while we admit to being highly skeptical of him following his win in Kentucky, we quickly turned a 180 following his commanding win in the Preakness.
Watch him power forward from the gate in that race to establish the position he wants, then watch him pick right up on his own when taken on by a talented Social Inclusion off the far turn, and then watch him prove much the best over a perfect-trip Ride On Curlin in the stretch. After viewing the Preakness, tell us you’re not impressed. He earned a new top TimeformUS Speed Figure in Baltimore, and by all accounts, has trained well since arriving in NY following that race. All good.
Are there any holes in his armor? We are beginning to think that if there are, they are very small. Distance is an obvious concern, but how many of his rivals are better-suited to 1 1/2 miles than he? Some might point to his already having 12 races and claim this as a drawback, since it feels like a lot of racing for a three-year-old by recent standards. We think it is to his benefit that he has that much seasoning under his belt. We think it will work to his advantage on Saturday. So, the question is, do we bet on him at such a short price? No, but not necessarily because we are against him. As strong as he looks in this race, and he looks strong indeed, he will still be an underlay at his likely price in the 2/5 or 3/5 range. At that price we would simply pass and root him home… unless we had an idea with one of his opponents. We do. Regardless, watch us cheer California Chrome on through the stretch along with everyone else. We have all been waiting a long time for our next Triple Crown winner, and to us, California Chrome has a very good chance to complete the sweep.
Matterhorn (#3, 30-1) doesn’t look competitive from any angle and was quickly dismissed.
#4 is Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve (15-1), and he is far from impossible as an upsetter here. He is one of the horses who have to really step forward to win here, but he is also one of the entrants we would label “most likely to improve.” We don’t know if the improvement is coming in his first start over 1 1/2 miles, but he has come forward in every start of his career to this point, and there didn’t seem to be anything flukey about his second-place finish in Kentucky.
Sure, he avoided the traffic that befell horses like Medal Count and Wicked Strong while making his outside run, but he was also far back early in a race that featured a solid but far from dazzling Derby pace. He will need more help than that up front to win the Belmont, but we’ll expect to see him doing some running through the lane, and will include him underneath.
Ride On Curlin (#5, 12-1), like California Chrome, has competed in both legs of the Triple Crown series. To us, that is where the resemblance ends, but let’s not dismiss the Preakness runner-up so hastily. He emerged from the Derby with a viable excuse, as he received one of the more obvious bad rides in the race and wound up finishing a respectable 7th, less than seven lengths behind at the finish. The jockey change for the Preakness worked wonders, as Joel Rosario gave him an expert ride, lying in wait as California Chrome was forced to go early to burn off Social Inclusion, and then taking a strong run at him in the stretch. Ride On Curlin did his best all the way to the finish, but was never catching the winner, and settled for second best, well clear of the rest. To us, his chances of beating California Chrome were never going to get better than they were that day. We respect him as a competitor and understand why anyone would want to give him another shot at California Chrome, but we do not see him winning the Belmont Stakes.
Matuszak (#6, 30-1) is eligible for his two-life condition and has never run a race that makes him remotely competitive with this kind of competition. Next.
Samraat (#7, 20-1) is a very good horse, but one who has some things working against him on Saturday that we believe will be too much for him to overcome. The first obstacle is the distance. While you can never be sure what will happen over a distance like this, we have never believed that Samraat was a horse who would do better as the distances got longer. His Wood was a fine performance, and it did earn him a career-top TimeformUS Speed Figure, but he didn’t have the kind of strong finish in there to suggest that he relished the trip. He more or less stayed on gamely to just get 2nd from a tired pace-setter after the winner had blown by him in the stretch. His Derby was also a fine effort, which is what we’ve come to expect from this horse. But he once again was in position just off California Chrome coming to the top of the stretch, and just couldn’t kick on with him from there. He stayed gamely, as he always does, but it seems that more distance may be his undoing.
He may also find himself in the unenviable position of having to keep California Chrome honest early in this race, or even of being the pacesetter with California Chrome tracking along with him. Either way, to us, Samraat is unlikely to be able to run with that horse early and still be around at the end.
Commissioner (#8, 20-1) is not as talented as several of his Belmont Stakes rivals, but he is a stayer, and that could give him a chance to clunk up for a piece of the purse late in the long Belmont stretch. If you’re inclined to use him in that fashion, be our guest, but we can’t recommend him on top.
#9 brings us to the horse who we believe is the most dangerous rival for California Chrome in this race. To us, Wicked Strong (6-1) has an awful lot pointing to him as the “other horse” in this Belmont Stakes, and he is the one that we will absolutely try to beat the favorite with. The potential has always been there with this horse, and he is one that many took notice of after his game run in the nine-furlong Remsen last year. Considering the glacial early pace of that race, the fact that he was able to make the run that he did to fall just short of a pair of very talented 2yos was an attention-grabber. He disappointed a bit over the winter at Gulfstream, but that is something we have learned over and over again not to hold against any horse. Since arriving back home to NY, Wicked Strong has flourished. Obviously, if you follow TimeformUS at all, you know that we thought very highly of the Wood Memorial as a race overall. Wicked Strong earned a 116 speed figure for that race, which puts his top effort on the level with California Chrome in that department. The difference is, Wicked Strong earned that number two months ago, and we believe he is more eligible to further develop at this stage. In the interim, he went to Kentucky for the Derby, where he drew a tough post on the far outside and, after getting caught wide in the early stages of the race, tried to make an inside run through the stretch. Unfortunately for him, he was in traffic all the way and was badly bothered by Danza in midstretch.
After watching the replay a few times, we are still impressed that he was able to recover enough to finish 4th in that race. Again, we can’t make the argument that Wicked Strong was going to win the Derby with a better trip, but he was certainly going to be closer. He is a powerful finisher, one who has shown the ability to exceed his early pace figures with his final-time figures (again, see Craig’s piece). He is not a one-run plodder. He can be expected to be in range of the leaders as the field enters the far turn. He is at home in NY, and his trainer has been sending out one “live” horse after another since returning his string from Florida. And he is already fast enough to compete with the heavy favorite in this race. The distance of this race can, and has, undone plenty of horses who otherwise looked quite good on paper. Maybe that will happen with Wicked Strong on Saturday. But we are betting against it, and betting against a potential Triple Crown in the process.
General a Rod (#10, 20-1) projects to be up close early in this race, and that may work against him to an extent, but we doubt that he’s going to be contesting the early fractions. He is a big price and a horse to at least consider using somewhere in this race–especially if you’re a trip handicapper. While his Preakness effort appears to be more of the same from this horse–a horse who wasn’t fast enough going in and isn’t fast enough coming out–he did emerge from that race with a legitimate excuse after getting stuck behind a tiring pace-player on the far turn and getting shuffled right out of contention. He did well to recover as much as he did in there, and it is not out of the realm to suggest he could, and should, have hit the board in the Preakness. We still don’t like him much in the Belmont, but we understand why some may want to include him at a big price.
#11 is Tonalist (8-1), and to our way of thinking, he is the toughest call in the race. On our figures Tonalist hasn’t run a race close to fast enough to win this thing. But if you like him as much as we do, it is not so much because of what he has already done on the racetrack; it is because of what he appears to be capable of doing. He is so lightly raced that he is all upside and potential at this point, so the question is: does this Belmont Stakes come up a little too soon for this horse? Unfortunately, things haven’t gone perfectly for Tonalist, who, after flashing much ability in Florida over the winter, was being pointed to the Wood Memorial in April. He was forced to miss that race, and effectively the first two legs of the Triple Crown, after developing a lung infection that took him out of training. He was back on track in last month’s Peter Pan, which we thought was even a better effort than it may seem.
That race was contested over a sloppy sealed track, and Tonalist simply ran away from that field as though there was no rust on him after missing some time. And, as opposed to thinking him a horse who simply relished the off-going, we thought Tonalist may have been a horse who didn’t particularly like the track. He seemed to run off with Joel Rosario up the backstretch after finding his footing, and yet he still had plenty left to dominate the proceedings in a visually impressive score. We’ll see if he is simply biting off more than he can chew at this stage, but we like this horse, and can’t avoid using him somewhere in our play.
So we will be making our stand with Wicked Strong in the 2014 Belmont Stakes. But what if it turns out Wicked Strong does not prove to be up to this tallest of tall tasks? What if it becomes clear, at the top of the stretch, say, that our bets are going down? Of course our most fervent wish, from an emotional standpoint, is that we will get to see the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. As important as it is to keep our emotions out of the handicapping and wagering process, once the bets have been made, there is no harm in becoming human again.