Belmont draw introduces potential adversity for California Chrome

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 4, 2014 

Belmont Stakes Horse Racing

Exercise rider Willie Delgado hot walked California Chrome after a workout Wednesday in Elmont, N.Y.


  • Belmont Stakes

    What: Final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

    When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Elmont, N.Y.

    TV: NBC-18

ELMONT, N.Y. — In the same breath they acknowledge the ability California Chrome has shown in crafting his six-race winning streak, many of his would-be conquerors say it's not just the colt's fluid stride that comes easy for him.

Brilliant as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes hero has been as he readies for his attempt at the Triple Crown on Saturday, there is the perception his victories have been largely void of adversity. No stumbles at the break. No getting trapped down inside with dirt in his face. No lacking for racing room when jockey Victor Espinoza has asked his horse to go into overdrive.

If nothing untoward transpires for California Chrome in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, the 36-year drought since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978 may finally be quenched. However, 10 rivals were entered Wednesday to try and make trouble for him. And when the post positions for the 11/2-mile classic were drawn, there was at least a glimmer of hope that California Chrome's hand may finally be forced.

Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred colt was installed as the 3-5 morning-line favorite to defy the toughest odds in Thoroughbred racing after drawing post No. 2 for the 146th Belmont Stakes.

In the absence of any recent evidence of how to stop the tactical monster who has won his last six outings by a combined 271/2 lengths, some of California Chrome's challengers hope the inside draw will force California Chrome to gun for the lead instead of being able to settle just off the early leaders as he did in his Derby and Preakness victories.

"The thing that kind of popped out to me is that California Chrome and the outside horse, Tonalist, they wouldn't be too crazy about that draw," said Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, which co-owns Belmont entrant General a Rod, who drew post No. 10. "I'm tickled to death with our post. If he gets a good break, for once we'll have that horse down on our inside instead of vise versa."

California Chrome's versatility is the wheat that allows him to separate from the chaff. To that end, his connections were not fretting his starting point in the legacy-defining 12-furlong race.

If circumstances dictate California Chrome needs to be up front, trainer Art Sherman points to the colt's gate-to-wire win in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes in March as reason to not worry. If his challengers try and gang up on him, reminiscent of the pressure Smarty Jones faced during his failed Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, California Chrome has proven to be relaxed enough to rate without taking the bait.

"I really think it's fine for him," Sherman said of the post. "He's got that natural speed to leave him out of there. There might be some horse who says, I'm going to take the track away from him and see if we can bury him early. And if that's the case, Victor can just sit right off the pace.

"He's kind of a push-button to ride, you don't have to be on the lead. But he's in a position where if they're walking the first part of it, it will be very hard to keep him off the lead."

Wicked Strong, the only other Grade I winner in the field, was tabbed the 6-1 second choice on the morning line after drawing post No. 9. The Jimmy Jerkens-trained Wicked Strong has generated substantial chatter as one who could ruin history if he uncorks the powerful late kick he demonstrated in both his Wood Memorial victory and fourth-place run in the Kentucky Derby.

"Jimmy is a master at this stuff and he has this horse right," said Don Little Jr. of Centennial Farms, owners of Wicked Strong. "California Chrome seems to do things very easily. I think if he regresses a little bit we have a shot. If he doesn't, I think we'll be right there anyway."

Tonalist, the 8-1 third choice out of post No. 11, enters off a 4-length victory in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes on May 10. However, no horse has pulled off the Peter Pan-Belmont double since Hall of Famer A.P. Indy in 1992.

California Chrome's challengers also site these statistics for hope: No Triple Crown winner has had to face more than seven rivals in the final leg and none pulled off the feat without having previous run at Belmont Park, a surface California Chrome is trying for the first time.

"He's got a heavy load on his back besides the two wins coming into the race," trainer Rick Violette, who conditions Belmont entrant and multiple graded stakes winner Samraat, said of California Chrome. "And I think a post like California Chrome has, he's going to have to go (to the front) because they don't want to be surrounded. His worst races have been when he's had dirt in his face."

He also has a knack for making his own good fortune.

"I feel better about this race than I have any other race to be honest," Sherman said. "Just looking at the horse ... I see how far he has advanced. He's going to have a target on his back. But they better worry about me to tell you the truth."

Social Inclusion opts for Woody Stephens

Social Inclusion, the third-place finisher in the Preakness Stakes who had been under consideration for the Belmont Stakes, was entered in the Grade II Woody Stephens instead on the undercard.

Social Inclusion has had problems in the starting gate, including acting up before the Preakness, and did not have a good gate schooling session this week at Belmont Park. Those issues contributed to the decision by owner Ron Sanchez and trainer Manny Azpurua to opt for the 7-furlong Woody Stephens against 12 others.

Alice Wincze Hughes (859) 231-1676. Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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