When California Chrome races for a place in history Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, he’ll be fighting not only to overcome the toughest of the three tests in five short weeks but a field of horses that are fresher than any faced by the 11 legends already etched into racing lore.
“I think it is harder,” said Cot Campbell, the Dogwood Stable owner, of the effort required to win the Triple Crown these days. “I think horses are not as battle-hardened when they go into the Triple Crown series. Used to be a horse that would run in the Derby would have eight or 10 races. Now maybe three or four. They’re not as tough as they used to be.
“I think there are several reasons for that. People that breed horses have bred speed into them and not much endurance. I think trainers also tend to pick their spots rather judiciously and don’t use a horse as much as they could.”
That latter element is what has made the prospect of sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont such a daunting challenge with the longest of the three races coming last.
California Chrome is the 34th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Based on history, the odds are 2 to 1 against him winning the third as only 11 horses before have done.
Recent history paints an even bleaker picture. Horses are 0 for 12 in completing the Triple Crown in the 35 Belmonts since Affirmed last achieved the feat in 1978. California Chrome will be the third horse to try in 10 years. The past two either didn’t make it to the finish (Big Brown pulled up short of the finish line) or to the gate (I’ll Have Another was scratched in 2012).
The 1½-mile “Test of the Champion” has proved too daunting for many after such a grueling five-week effort in three states.
The three horses who have succeeded in the past 65 years left an indelible impression. Each of them had to do it against rivals that ran in relative lock-step with them from beginning to end.
Secretariat (1973) dueled Sham through all three legs up until the backstretch at Belmont Park. Seattle Slew (1977) faced off three times in the stretch against Run Dusty Run, who finished second, third and second in the series.
Then came the long-running battle between Affirmed (1978) and serial runner-up Alydar. The pair born in the same barn met 10 times in their careers, nine of them 1-2 finishes including each leg of the Triple Crown.
Those kind of duels have become almost non-existent since the turn of the 21st century. Only three of the Triple Crown hopefuls to fail since Affirmed got bested by a rival that ran all three legs with them. Alysheba (1987) finished fourth to Bet Twice, which ran runner-up in both the Derby and Preakness. Two years later, Sunday Silence (1989) came up short to Derby and Preakness runner-up Easy Goer at the Belmont.
The last time it happened was 1998, when Derby and Preakness runner-up Victory Gallop edged out Real Quiet’s claim.
Of the nine other Triple Crown hopefuls to fail since 1978, all of them lost at Belmont Park to a horse that didn’t run in either the Derby, Preakness or both.
Since Victory Gallop in ’98, only two Belmont winners have even run in all three legs. Both of them were Preakness winners – Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005). Each of the other 13 Belmont winners since 1998 have skipped at least the Preakness and run the Belmont fresh – including last year’s winner Palace Malice of Dogwood Stable.
“We did not run Palace Malice because he had a bad race in the Derby,” Campbell said of the Preakness. “To come back in two weeks off a bad race would have been stupid. But I’ve always felt if you had a good race in the Derby and had a reason to run in the Preakness you should definitely do it. But I think it has lost its luster a little bit. Trainers like to skip it and wait for the Belmont.”
That’s certainly the case this year with California Chrome and Ride On Curlin the only two horses trying to run all three legs. Four horses who finished in the top eight at Churchhill Downs are entered in the Belmont after sitting out the Preakness. Entries Social Inclusion and Kid Cruz both ran three weeks ago at Pimlico after skipping the Derby.
The 11-horse field also includes Tonalist and Commissioner as well as Matusak, who finished second in its last start in mid-April.
Those kind of fresh legs have defined the Belmont winners of late. Palace Malice was just the latest, upstaging the anticipated showdown between Derby and Preakness winners Orb and Oxbow who ran all three legs.
Does California Chrome have what it takes to buck the trend and join racing’s most elite fraternity?
“He seems to be and I don’t know how you’d knock him,” Campbell said of Chrome’s quality. “I knocked him in the Derby for running slow. It was the slowest Derby since 1974 on a fast track. But he did run faster than the rest of them and did come back in the Preakness and ran plenty fast. Any way I knocked him would be insignificant now.”
A victory by California Chrome would be a huge lift for horse racing, which has been waiting nearly four decades for a new superhorse to fete. Campbell would love to see it happen – sort of.
“I think the nation kind of turns to the Triple Crown once a year to follow racing closely, even people not normally interested in it,” Campbell said. “It’s got a lot of pizzazz about it. It would be good for racing for a horse to win the Triple Crown. I hope in a way he does.
“In another way I hope he doesn’t. I have made a $5,000 bet in Las Vegas at 12-1 that Palace Malice would be named horse of the year. That bet looks good – if you don’t have a Triple Crown winner. The Triple Crown would set me back a little bit.”
Campbell could sacrifice the $60,000 payday for the good of the sport. Palace Malice will be running at Belmont on the anniversary of his defining victory last year – this time in the Met Mile Handicap. He’s undefeated in three stakes races this year, including a win in the Westchester on May 11 at Belmont.
“He’s a helluva race horse,” Campbell said of Palace Malice. “He’s the real thing and understands the game and likes it and is durable and tough and enthusiastic and fast.”
Next Saturday, we’ll find out whether California Chrome is all that as well. Even as a favorite, the odds are long in the modern Triple Crown era.