On Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome will try to become horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978. This much you know.
With Victor Espinoza aboard, Chrome is the heavy favorite leading up to the race. Despite his odds, which are 3-5 now and could even be bet down, Chrome is hardly a lock. The surface is tricky -- "Big Sandy", as they say -- and it's long. Like, really long. It's a mile-and-a-half, easily the longest of the three Triple Crown races. Plus, the field is pretty solid, with a couple horses more than capable of beating Chrome even at his best.
Simply, a lot would have to go right for Chrome to win Saturday. The Belmont is a different animal than the Preakness and Kentucky Derby, evidenced by the many failed Triple Crown attempts in the past.
Since 1997, eight horses have won the Derby and Preakness and failed to win the Belmont (one of those, I'll Have Another in 2012, didn't even race in the third leg). Three of them came in second, some agonizingly so. Remember Smarty Jones? This one's brutal. He has it.
WHERE IS THE WIRE.
Even worse, at least for the Triple Crown hopeful, was Real Quiet's battle with Victory Gallop in 1998.
This is all mostly to say: It's really, really hard to win the Belmont. And: recent history is not on Chrome's side.
Look, Chrome is an amazing horse. He won the Derby and Preakness with Espinoza asking very little of him. He basically coasted to victory. Were his times great? No, not at all. Could they have been? Maybe. In the Derby, Commanding Curve is charging to the wire and gaining ground on Chrome. Some see this as reason that Commanding Curve, with more track at the Belmont, will catch Chrome. But, really, it looks more like Chrome is doing enough to win and nothing more. He wasn't going to get passed.
In short, I don't think Commanding Curve wins Saturday. Here's who might.
Tonalist (8-1): Speaking of history, Tonalist has a bit working in his favor. Of the last seven Belmont winners, four have raced in neither the Preakness nor Derby. Same goes for Tonalist, who was mighty impressive in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in early May.
And this wasn't a bunch of nags. This was a Grade II stakes race, including the likes of Commissioner and Matterhorn -- two horses in the Belmont field. Tonalist drew the outside gate, which could be an issue, but with the length of the race it isn't as big a deal as it is in the first two Triple Crown legs.
Wicked Strong (6-1): In terms of pedigree, Wicked Strong is on par with Chrome. Winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial, Wicked Strong had a brutal trip at the Derby after drawing the far outside post. He's a bit more inside in this one, and it certainly wouldn't be surprising if he outduels Chrome (or, ahem, Tonalist) for the win.
Ride On Curlin (12-1): After finishing second in the Preakness, Ride On Curlin's connections are optimistic about his chances in the Belmont. His trainer, Billy Gowan, hopes his horse can force Chrome to suffer the fate of Real Quiet, Silver Charm, and Smarty Jones, all recent second-place Belmont finishers to closers.
"I thought all along this might be (Ride On Curlin's) best distance," Gowan told the New York Daily News. "He never really quits, so if California Chrome finds that long stretch tiring, we'll be running at him."
Ride On Curlin ran out of track at Pimlico; that won't happen this time.
Medal Count (20-1): Certainly an outsider, but Medal Count could sneak away with one should the favorites falter. His connections believe he should have gotten third at the Derby, but Danza, the eventual third-place finisher, boxed him out. He starts on the rail Saturday and will likely jump right out into the lead.
Of course, there are 11 horses in total, and, for the most part, 11 horses with a shot of winning. Though it's unlikely Matterhorn (30-1) or Matuszak (30-1) find a path to victory, remember this: Birdstone, the winner over Smarty Jones in '04, was a 36-1 longshot. So it's certainly not out of the question.
So will California Chrome win? Based on history, probably not. Based on pedigree, maybe. In the end, I feel it's more likely that Tonalist or Wicked Strong comes through ahead. But it's a horse race. Who knows? I am fairly certain, however, this won't happen.