In many ways, horse racing is no longer a sport that captures the imagination of the American public. But the Kentucky Derby is still a major event, and the winner of that race receives plenty of attention heading into the Preakness Stakes. And should any horse win both, you can be sure that the entire nation will be watching when it comes time for the Belmont Stakes.
That’s the situation that now faces California Chrome. Winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the young colt is now riding a six-race winning streak heading into the Belmont this weekend. And should he manage to cross the finish line there first, he’ll become the first horse in 36 years to accomplish the feat, last done by Affirmed in 1978.
California Chrome Enters Race as Favorite
Given his recent success, it’s no surprise that California Chrome will come into Belmont as the odds-on favorite. At the time of this writing, a bet on California Chrome to win would pay about even money – far ahead of second choice Ride on Curlin, who is currently listed at 5-1.
It’s an incredible feat for a horse that was relatively unheralded and from an undistinguished bloodline. California Chrome was not certain to be a superstar early in his career: he was inconsistent early on, until being paired with jockey Victor Espinoza. But the horse whose mother, Love the Chase, was bought for $8,000, and whose sire, Lucky Pulpit, commanded a stud fee of just $2,500, is now worth millions.
Before the Santa Anita Derby, his owners turned down $6 million for a 51 percent ownership stake – and it’s hard to imagine just how much Perry Martin and Steve Coburn would want for their prized horse today.
Potential Pitfalls Abound
Considering the hype around California Chrome, it might be easy to assume that this is little more than a victory lap on the way to a Triple Crown. But there’s a reason nobody has accomplished the feat in nearly four decades, and there are plenty of ways that this story could end with another close call that doesn’t pan out.
First of all, Belmont Park challenges potential Triple Crown winners in ways that no other track has. At 1.5 miles in length, this is a substantially longer race than the Kentucky Derby (1.25 miles) or the Preakness (1 and 3/16 miles). For most horses, including all of the entrants in this year’s Belmont field, this is the first time they’ve raced that far in competition.
“This is a stepping stone up, and not every horse is bred to go that far,” New York Racing Association senior vice president Martin Panza told NPR.
Belmont is also known as the Big Sandy, due to its sandier racing surface that may have befuddled some otherwise great horses. There’s also the fact that the race is the third grueling competition for a potential Triple Crown winner in five weeks, a schedule thoroughbreds at the elite level simply don’t deal with anymore.
And while California Chrome has been undefeated ever since Espinoza began riding him, there’s also the fact that the jockey has only won twice in 67 rides at Belmont Park over the course of his career.
Team Remains Confident
But California Chrome’s team feels they still have the horse to beat.
“He’s got the right demeanor that you want to have in a horse,” said trainer Art Sherman, who didn’t think the length of the race would be a problem. “He has no wasted motion. When you want him to go, he goes.”
Owner Steve Coburn was also positive, and said the horse’s fans could propel him to victory.
“We’ve got all of America on our side I do believe,” Coburn said, “other than the people that have these horses running against us.”