ELMONT – To put into perspective how long it’s been since Affirmed took home the Triple Crown trophy from Belmont Park some 36 years ago, consider the following. In 1978, a gallon of gasoline cost 63 cents and a dozen eggs 48 cents. Bubba Watson and Kobe Bryant were born that year. It also marked the end of professional basketball in Buffalo, and in 1978 the Washington Bullets won the NBA Finals.
This afternoon at beautiful Belmont Park, California Chrome will look to join a club more exclusive than Augusta National when he attempts to win the final jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. The son of Lucky Pulpit will face 10 challengers in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. His challengers will seek to deny him a feat that has eluded the last 11 horses that have tried to complete the third leg after winning the first two races in the series.
At Wednesday’s draw a bit of coincidence surfaced when Chrome received No. 2 for today’s big event, the same saddle number worn by the great Secretariat in 1973 for the Belmont. They both wore No. 3 in the Preakness. If you believe in destiny, I’ve got the horse right here.
The California-bred chestnut colt has been sensational thus far, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness while handling distances he’d never conquered before. After completing the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in Baltimore three weeks ago, he looked every bit the part as he headed to the winner’s circle. In contrast, two years ago I’ll Have Another seemed to be stressed after sweeping the first two legs when he went all out to defeat Bodemeister in the first two legs, then never made it to gate in the Belmont.
California Chrome is clearly the class of this 3-year-old crop and has looked nothing short of spectacular in the mornings at Belmont Park. There are several pitfalls that await him this afternoon at the track known as Big Sandy. It gained its nickname for the sandier mix that is used on the track to deal with the rain and humidity encountered on Long Island.
“It’s part of the equation, and it’s probably stopped some horses from winning the Triple Crown,” Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations at the New York Racing Association, said earlier this week on National Public Radio.
Another pitfall that could stop Chrome’s bid is the sheer size of the mile and a half oval that is larger than both Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Jockey Victor Espinoza will need to be aware of his surroundings and he made a wise move to spend the week here in New York getting used to the track. When you reach the far turn in Louisville and Baltimore you have three furlongs to the wire, but at Big Sandy you have over a half mile (4½ furlongs) to the finish. If you move too early, it can cost you the race. There’s a reason it’s called The Test of the Champion.
Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, has full faith in his jockey. “It helps that Victor has been riding here all week,” Sherman said. “I’m sure they’ll take a few different runs at him, like they did at Pimlico. As long as he doesn’t get in any traffic problems, I don’t think it will be a problem for him. You can’t move too early on him; you just have to sit as long as you can.”
The 77-year-old trainer, who won more than 2,000 races as a jockey from 1957 to 1978, had forgotten just how large the physical plant is at venerable Belmont Park. “I haven’t been back here for a lot of years, and I rode here years ago. It’s changed quite a bit. I didn’t realize it was this big. After you get away from it, it’s a huge racetrack,” said Sherman.
One horse that stands in front of Chrome’s quest is the one who was charging at him hard in Louisville. Commanding Curve, the son of Master Command, a grandson of Belmont winner A.P. Indy, is the horse that can play spoiler with his late closing style. If the pace is quick up front, this will favor his chances.
The Curve skipped the Preakness to point at the Belmont and comes in as a fresh horse. West Point Thoroughbreds managing partner Terry Finley told The News shortly after the conclusion of the Derby that this is the race he really wants.
“Going a mile and a half at Big Sandy, I’d like to have another shot at this horse,” Finley said. “He ran a mile and a quarter faster than we did, but I love the way we finished up and I hope that I have a chance to experience that last 100 yards.”
On Friday morning Commanding Curve’s trainer pointed to several key factors, including his horse’s freshness and the added distance of the Belmont.
“He’s trained hard and steady since the Derby,” Stewart said. “His breezes have been better than average. I think that last quarter is going to be a benefit to us. This horse never shows exertion, his workouts, his Derby race, he wasn’t even blowing hard, that makes you feel he’s got a lot more in the tank.”
Another horse that can hit the board underneath is Ride On Curlin. The son of Curlin was coming strong after Chrome in the Preakness and could relish the additional quarter of a mile. His sire lost the 2007 Belmont by a nose and last year’s winner, Palace Malice, is another of Curlin’s progeny.
There are few moments in sports that can capture the heartbeat of a nation and California Chrome has the chance to etch his name in the history books with a victory in a city considered the sports mecca of America.
If he happens to hit the top of the stretch with the lead, this old track’s grandstand will shake as if a 5.0 registered on the Richter scale on Long Island. If you were at the Bills comeback game in January 1993, you know exactly the feeling that millions will be experiencing as he thunders down that unending stretch at Belmont, searching for the wire.
There have been close calls over the past 36 years; Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones immediately come to mind. In Buffalo, we’ve had our share of sports disappointment, and this horse, while based on the West Coast, represents hard-working connections with down-to-earth traits that would be fully embraced by our fair city.
My heart will be racing just like it was in Rich Stadium in 1993, wondering if the lengthy drought will finally end and complete this real-life feel-good story. My money’s on it.
Post Time outlook: 1 – California Chrome 2 – Commanding Curve 3 – Ride On Curlin
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.