Everything seemed to sparkle and shine Friday morning. Sun-drenched Belmont Park was abuzz with camera and news crews from TV and radio, both local and national. There were interviews being conducted non-stop. And nothing shined and sparkled more than the star of the show himself, California Chrome, who went out for his final gallop before Saturday’s big show, where most people are expecting history to be made.
Many experienced horse people who have been here before are taking the fatalist approach. If it’s meant to be it will happen.
There are three ways to approach the Belmont Stakes – you can simply root for California Chrome and keep your wallet in your pocket or you can root for him, but still place a few bob on another horse, hoping to get tremendous value, or you honestly feel he is vulnerable and will try to beat him, Triple Crown or no Triple Crown.
Despite the deep field, some feel Chrome will win by a pole, and that wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest. Others feel the mile and a half will catch up to him and will prove to once again be the obstacle that no Derby and Preakness winner is able to clear.
If Chrome is to be beat, the likely suspects are Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist; all of whom have been training and looking in peak form. There will be respect for Samraat and Commissioner, both hard-knocking horses, with the latter bred to win the Belmont Stakes.
But what of the two late arrivals, Medal Count and General a Rod, who didn’t take up residence at Belmont until 8:30 Thursday night and have had one only one gallop over the track?
The feeling here is that if you’re going to try to upset California Chrome, you might as well go for the big bucks and try to catch a couple of top-class horses way off their market value, both of whom are coming off nightmarish trips – Medal Count in the Derby and General a Rod in the Preakness.
Why go for the bombs when you can get great value on Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist? Or even Samraat and Commissioner?
Because in four of the last five failed Triple Crown attempts, the Belmont winner paid $142.50 (Sarava), $79 (Da’ Tara), $74 (Birdstone), and $61.50 (Lemon Drop Kid).
It is difficult to come up with an upsetter based on looks and works, because everyone looks great and has been working lights out. I do have to say, however, that Wicked Strong appears to have made as much, or more, physical progress as any of the participants. He has put on muscle and his coat is more radiant than it was at Churchill Downs. And his works over the training track have been strong.
I could rave about several of the others, but for the purpose of finding that monster price, I will say that Medal Count and General a Rod both look terrific and both had smooth gallops in their first spin around the Belmont oval.
I wrote an entire column this week about Medal Count’s horrible trip in the Kentucky Derby and other factor to support him.
General a Rod was a relative latecomer to the Belmont field, but all you have to do is watch the Preakness and see him moving up to challenge the leaders on his own, on a nice loose rein, nearing the half-mile, and then watch Ria Antonia back right up into him, forcing him to stop his run. Just like that, he went from third to the back of the pack. To his credit, he came with another run late and just missed getting up for third.
This is a horse who likes to duke it out for as long as he has to, and he and Medal Count both have the stamina (mainly through Dynaformer) to get the distance. Not only can General a Rod look you in the eye and not back down, he is a steady galloper with brilliant speed who will keep coming at you, as he showed in the major Gulfstream stakes this year. He could have drawn better and will have to break cleanly and rush up a bit from post 10, with Tonalist likely to be a presence on his outside. But he is also capable of possibly putting California Chrome in a box if he can seal off the outside. Another scenario is for him to take just go for the lead and try to grind everyone into the ground.
Medal Count is another who is best as a grinder, but he does possess a good turn of foot if needed, and actually was moving strongly on the far turn of the Derby and closing in on the leaders when he eventually got clobbered by a veering out Danza just as he was finding a second gear in midstretch. And the beginning of the race was no picnic for him either.
So, these are two longshot possibilities and either or both could spruce up any exotic with California Chrome.
Wicked Strong is another to root for, mainly because of the comebacks by Jimmy Jerkens and Centennial Farm, and you have great stories surrounding Bill Gowan and his family, Robert Evans and Pleasant Colony, New Yor-bred Samraat losing his sire the week of the Belmont, and A.P. Indy’s possible final hurrah.
But it all boils down to California Chrome. Everything has gone perfectly for him throughout the entire Triple Crown and it’s his race to lose. If he doesn’t and ends the 36-year drought, oh, what a party there will be.
California Chrome emerges from the tunnel. Just another quiet morning, right?
Uh, not quite. Chrome eyes the frenzy of photographers.
California Chrome's final gallop.
California Chrome stretches out second time around.
Tonalist looks grand in the early morning sun.
Medal Count getting used to his new home.
Medal Count's post gallop stroll in the paddock.
Samraat didn't take long to get used to the change of scenery from Aqueduct to Belmont.