However, the 3-5 morning line favorite will have to overcome breeding that says he will be in trouble when he reaches the top of the stretch at Big Sandy having run as far as he ever has and still has a quarter-mile to go.
He also will be challenged by fresh horses, a factor his supremely confident co-owner, Steve Coburn, said he feared as far back as April. One of those,Tonalist, who drew the outside No. 11, has everything you would look for to score the upset.
The Belmont was another matter, Coburn said during an NTRA conference call prior to the Santa Anita Derby. It wasnâ€™t the mile and a half distance--California Chromeâ€™s biggest obstacle--that Coburn fretted over. His concern was that his colt would be denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont by a fresh horse who had skipped the Derby and/or Preakness.
â€śTo me, going in just the Preakness or Belmont is cheating,â€ť Coburn said. â€śIf youâ€™ve got a horse you think can do it, put him in the first race and keep him in the second and third races.â€ť
Coburn is obviously a student of the game. The past eight Belmont winners skipped the Derby or Preakness or both. Afleet Alex is the only colt in the past dozen years to win the Belmont after competing in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Afleet Alex is also the only Belmont winner during that period to even run in the Preakness. The second jewel of the Triple Crown almost always gets the Derby winner but, in recent years, the majority of Derby also-rans have tended not to show up in Baltimore two weeks later.
This explains why Pimlico president Tom Chuckas is pushing hard to change the spacing of the Triple Crown races. He isnâ€™t thinking of what is good for racing. Heâ€™s all out for his own track, which, to be fair, is his job. With a month between races, Chuckas argues, more top Derby contenders would also show up in Baltimore.
A well researched piece by Natalie Voss, published by the Paulick Report, notes that the Triple Crown trail has taken many forms over the years, including a different order of the races. However, an accompanying chart shows that 10 of the previous Triple Crown winners did it within a 35-day time frame, same as now. Coincidentally, seven had exactly 35 days.
Three did it within an even more compact period. Assault accomplished his sweep within 28 days; Gallant Fox did it in 29; Sir Barton in 32. The exception is Citation, who had 42 days between his Derby and Belmont. This is still less than Chuckas and others, who advocate a month or more between the Classics, would prefer.
But I digress. To return to the point, if California Chrome is to fall short, it most likely will be a fresh horse, or a horse fresher than him, who spoils everythingâ€¦and not one who also chased him home in the Preakness. This would eliminate General a Rod, who drew post 10, and No. 5 Ride on Curlin, whose 12-1 morning line seems generous in light of his second place in the Preakness.
I wouldnâ€™t leave the latter off exotic tickets. He has hit the board in six of eight career stakes but has never reached the wire first in an added money event.
The only other starter likely to draw much support is Derby runnerup Commanding Curve, who's 15-1 from post 4. However, he still has only a maiden win on his resume.
Better places to settle for those who feel compelled to try to beat the favorite are Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who'll start from post 9, and No. 11 Tonalist, coming off a win in the Peter Pan. Wicked Strong had a troubled trip in the Derby and was one of the few still running hard at the end. Heâ€™s also a New York-based horse, which has proven advantageous to recent upset winners Palace Malice, Daâ€™ Tara and Birdstone.
Like most of the hundred thousand-plus who will be at Belmont and the tens of millions watching on TV, Iâ€™ll be rooting for California Chrome to end the Triple Crown drought. But as a player, the horse who interests me most is Tonalist, also New York-based. The Peter Pan was only the fourth race of his career, so he is fresh.
Tonalistâ€™s breeding is a pole better than California Chrome, who is by a sprinter out of an $8,000 claimer. Tonalist is by the hot sire Tapit, out of a mare by Pleasant Colony, an outstanding dam sire, who missed his own Triple Crown in the Belmont when he was a tired horse, according to his trainer, the late John Campo.
Tonalistâ€™s 3-year-old campaign has been stellar. He opened by breaking his maiden at nine furlongs at Gulfstream, then ran second in an entry level allowance at the same distance. The winner, Constitution, next won the Florida Derby. Tonalist bounced back to capture the Peter Pan over the Belmont strip without having to go all out, a perfect prep. So while he is fresh, he has ample foundation with three wins at a mile and an eighth.
Because of its infrequently contested distance, the Belmont is often a jockeyâ€™s race. Ronnie Franklin managed to get Spectacular Bid beat, Kent Desormeaux probably cost Real Quiet his Triple Crown, and Stewart Elliott made his move way too soon on Smarty Jones, to name just a few riding gaffes that denied racing a Triple Crown winner. None of those riders were Belmont regulars at the time.
Victor Espinoza, who is unbeaten aboard California Chrome, is an accomplished journeyman but, as a Southern California regular, has rarely ridden the only mile and a half track in America. Tonalist has Joel Rosario, who rides Belmont every day and is one of the strongest finishers in the sport.
I hope Iâ€™m wrong and California Chrome makes history but most of the key indicators make Tonalist the horse to beat.