Saturday, May 24, 2014

Short-Breeze Pattern Historical Challenge for California Chrome

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 14, 2014—In the lull between waiting for the next shoe to drop and Monday’s potential for biggest Jackpot payoff in the history of Thoroughbred racing , I decided to delve deeply into the Belmont Stakes past performances to see if I might be a witness to history a fortnight from now.

Tried as I might, and I tried hard, I looked for holes in the form of California Chrome. Could he be vulnerable if a rival rider got overly aggressive early, in the manner that Jerry Bailey aboard Eddington a decade ago never allowed Smarty Jones a moment’s peace.

The field was approaching the six furlong marker, Stewart Elliott was attempting to secure a comfortable stalking position from the 3-path sitting off dueling leaders but Bailey moved four wide across the track, forcing Elliott’s hand.

If Smarty Jones and Elliott were to hold their position, they would have to clear the two inside horses, similar to the way Victor Esposito had to step on the gas when Luis Contreras attacked California Chrome from the outside at mid-far turn. “It was the longest [California Chrome] had even been in a drive,” said Art Sherman post-Preakness.

Now committed to the lead, Elliott went on the with it, and Smarty Jones opened a six length lead around the far turn and appeared to the 120,000 screaming fans that he was home free as he entered the stretch. The rest is history as Smarty tired perceptibly in deep stretch and “Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes.”

All else being equal, California Chrome has the early pace figures to out-foot his rivals, he has the sustaining speed to thwart the mid-race movers, possible kamikaze missions notwithstanding, and the class to and turn out foot to blow races open before the competition knows what hit them. Espinoza usually arrives at the wire with stick down.

But a mile and a half is a different animal entirely. Billy Turner, the only trainer to win the Belmont with an undefeated Triple Crown champion, said at the time that a horse has to be able to make three runs if he wants to get all 12 furlongs and arrive at the finish ahead of the competition. Turner knew what he was talking about and Sherman has pulled every correct strong imaginable.

But there is a variable that Sherman might not be have thought through completely: To my knowledge, nor to anyone else’s I’ve spoken to this week, no Belmont ever has been won with a series of long gallops and a single half-mile breeze in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont.

No one knows their horse better than Art and Alan Sherman. And, of course, as this is posted he’s just about the fittest horse in North America: Three races in six weeks, nine furlongs being the shortest in duration, guarantees that.

But this is Big Sandy; this is a mile and a half; this is a quality laden field from top to button with seven top quality rivals by my count among those considered Belmont probables. And if Sherman and Espinoza believe that his rivals ran relays at him in Baltimore, it’s not called New York, New York for no reason. Nothing comes easy here.

As series of long, slow two mile gallops certainly will retain his fitness and hopefully help him to maintain his energy level. So far, so good; but anything unforeseen can happen in the next two weeks.

There’s nothing at all wrong with a half-mile in 49 seconds; keeping your speed edge is certainly important at Belmont Spark no matter how big its circumference. But did we mention that this race is run at a mile and a half?

Isn’t something such as a ‘Chief-like’ mile breeze in something like 1:54, with a final furlong in roughly 13 seconds and low change accomplish what Sherman has in mind while getting him a little closer to the bottom. He’s going to need all the air he can get. It’s not a whimsical exercise by racing historians to refer to the race as ‘Test of the Champion’.

Written by John Pricci

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