By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
In the weeks following California Chrome’s victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), I have been reluctantly searching for a horse that could deny him a Triple Crown victory in the Belmont Stakes. It seemed like a sensible thing to do. After all, no horse has swept the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and we have seen many talented horses fall short in the Belmont after entering the race as seemingly unbeatable favorites.
But as the Belmont has drawn closer, my views have changed. I honestly believe that this will be the year the Triple Crown drought comes to an end. Instead of weakening under the strain of his Triple Crown run, California Chrome seems to be getting stronger. The reports on his recent training have been extremely positive. He has gained weight since the Preakness.
We know that he’s fit, and he has the foundation. He has enough tactical speed to seize the initiative and secure the early lead if jockey Victor Espinoza so desires. He’s tractable enough to take back off the lead and track the pace if someone else wants to set the pace. The acceleration he has demonstrated when turning for home has been amazing. Plus, he will be able to save ground all the way while breaking from post two.
In short, I believe history will be made on Saturday. I believe California Chrome will win the Triple Crown.
So having made this decision, my thoughts turned to the superfecta. I have not had much luck separating the remainder of the Belmont Stakes contenders, as I feel that most—if not all—are capable of hitting the board on their best day.
But that said, I do feel very confident that Wicked Strong will hit the board, and I’m thinking of building a superfecta around this opinion. Two starts back, he romped to a 3 ½-length victory in the Wood Memorial (gr. I), and while that victory was far and above the best performance of his career, he vindicated his performance with a strong fourth-place effort in Kentucky Derby (gr. I). In the Derby, he wound up further back than expected after stumbling at the start and encountering trouble in the run to the first turn. As if that wasn’t enough, he ran into traffic in the homestretch, making it all the more impressive that he got up to finish fourth. Three solid workouts since then signal that he is ready to roll on Saturday, and don’t forget, he broke his maiden at Belmont as a two-year-old.
So based on my opinions that California Chrome will win the Belmont and Wicked Strong will hit the board, I started to make decisions on which other horses to include in my superfecta. The first to be added was Ride On Curlin, runner-up behind California Chrome in the Preakness. The son of Curlin possesses good tactical speed coupled with an excellent closing kick, and—like California Chrome—he seems to be training well in the lead-up to the Belmont. In addition, he ran great at Belmont Park in last year’s Champagne Stakes (gr. I), closing rapidly to finish third behind the talented colts Havana and Honor Code.
Believe it or not, the next horse I added was the strongly-bred longshot Matuszak. Based on his race record to date, it’s difficult to envision him hitting the board in the Belmont. However, he has trained very well during the last month, and trainer Bill Mott is confident that Matuszak is ready to run the race of his life on Saturday. What sealed the deal for me was the news that Mott had secured Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith to ride Matuszak in the Belmont. For me, this is a very encouraging sign.
General a Rod had a horrific trip in the Preakness Stakes, getting trapped behind a fading Ria Antonia just when the real running began on the far turn. He went from three lengths back after six furlongs to ten lengths back at the stretch call, yet somehow re-rallied in the final furlong to just miss finishing third. In the past, General a Rod has flashed good early speed, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him right near the lead in the Belmont. From there, I believe his pedigree (by Roman Ruler out of a Dynaformer mare) can carry him farther than most of his rivals.
Commanding Curve overcame a slow pace to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, and while the similarities between this colt and 2013 Derby runner-up Golden Soul are striking—which leads one to wonder if Commanding Curve will run as poorly in this year’s Belmont as Golden Soul did last year—I believe that Commanding Curve is a better horse than Golden Soul, and much more likely to repeat his Derby effort in Belmont.
Rounding out my primary superfecta horses are Commissioner, runner-up in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) last time out, and Samraat, who finished fifth in the Derby after challenging California Chrome on the far turn. Both colts have experience at Belmont Park, and should find themselves pretty close to the early lead. I am particularly intrigued by Commissioner, who is strongly bred and reminds me a great deal of 2010 Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer. He should appreciate the twelve-furlong distance better than most.
The final horses I will use in my superfecta are Tonalist and Medal Count. Tonalist won a sloppy-track edition of the Peter Pan Stakes with a strong Beyer speed figure, but will have to break from post eleven, and could potentially get hung wide throughout the race. In addition, he has been dealing with some hoof issues, so that’s another concern.
As for Medal Count, he ran a deceptively strong eighth in the Kentucky Derby despite being bumped hard and forced to check at the eighth pole. His pedigree is as strong as any, but given that all of his best races have come on turf, synthetic, or the Churchill Downs dirt—a dirt track that turf/synthetic horses tend to enjoy—I have the feeling that this may not be Medal Count’s day to shine.
So taking all of this into consideration, I have constructed a trio of superfecta tickets that do rely on California Chrome winning and Wicked Strong hitting the board, but also allow for some surprising longshot candidates to sneak into the second, third or fourth positions. Here are my tickets:
Good luck to all!