California Chrome faces significant obstacles in quest for Triple Crown

Fatigue, fresh field, 1 1/2-mile distance among factors that have derailed recent bids

  • Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, with jockey Victor Espinoza, runs at Belmont Park. He is scheduled to compete for the Triple Crown in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, with… (Al Bello / Getty Images )
May 31, 2014|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

"Since Affirmed in 1978" — it has to be the most overused phrase in thoroughbred racing.

And yet it's inevitable every spring, when a new crop of 3-year-olds takes a shot at the sport's most cherished prize — the Triple Crown.

Affirmed was the last to do it, 36 years ago, and the ensuing drought has coincided with a long downturn in popularity for racing. The sport's stakeholders have hungered for a new superstar, and a Triple Crown seems the surest way to make one.

Which is where California Chrome enters the picture.

He's perfect for the role — a personable chestnut colt with four white hooves, an underdog story and scintillating speed. Five times he has entered the starting gate as a 3-year-old and five times he has blown away the competition, the last two in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

California Chrome will enter the June 7 Belmont Stakes as a commanding favorite, having already beaten the best challengers in the field. He seems poised to follow in the hoof prints of another great chestnut who ended a long Triple Crown drought, Secretariat

But the sport's recent past is littered with 3-year-olds who looked like the next superhorse only to falter on the 1 1/2-mile track at Belmont Park. A dozen horses since 1978 have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then lost in New York. A few — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones — came agonizingly close. Others, such as Big Brown and War Emblem, seemed spent shortly after leaving the starting gate.

The Triple Crown is a rigged game, one in which the aspirant is asked to find new limits of endurance while facing wave after wave of fresher horses. Some horsemen say it's become downright unfair. Others argue it's supposed to be this hard.

As California Chrome prepares to defy recent history, here are the five greatest obstacles he'll face:

A Fresh Field

Few analysts question that California Chrome is the best 3-year-old in America.

He easily avoided the pitfalls inherent to a 19-horse field in the Kentucky Derby, and he fended off early challenges from several speedy contenders in the Preakness.

But the road ahead is set to become far steeper as California Chrome prepares to run for the third time in five weeks against horses who haven't worked nearly as hard.

Two of his top rivals from Kentucky — Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong — are expected to run the Belmont on five weeks' rest. A new challenger, Tonalist, will run on four weeks' rest after winning the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.

Ride On Curlin, second in the Preakness, is the only other Belmont entrant who will have run the previous two legs of the Triple Crown.

So even if California Chrome is the best horse, he'll start at a significant disadvantage. Imagine the Miami Heat needing to win a whole extra round of playoffs before playing in the NBA Finals. That's the scenario here, and recent history says it makes a difference.

Since 1978, of the 11 near misses who made it to the starting gate for the Belmont (I'll Have Another scratched in 2012), seven lost to challengers who had not run in the Preakness. It's an accelerating trend — the last five horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown lost the Belmont to horses who hadn't run in Baltimore.

California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, wasn't shy about calling for reform after his horse won at Pimlico. Coburn said he'd like to see the Preakness and Belmont fields limited to horses who had already run the previous legs of the Triple Crown.

"If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont," he said. "I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime, because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart."

Fatigue

California Chrome has never run three times in five weeks. It's a workrate unfamiliar to most modern thoroughbreds. Trainer Art Sherman will happily tell you he prefers to rest his horses six or seven weeks between starts.

It's common to hear old-school analysts complain about the lack of stamina in modern thoroughbreds. Today's horses are bred to run shorter distances and often worked lightly before Triple Crown season. So come Belmont time, they're unprepared for the rigor, or so the argument goes.

Take Big Brown, who was perceived as even more dominant than California Chrome after he swept through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2008. He had run only three times prior to the Derby, and after battling a cracked hoof leading up to the Belmont, he pulled up mid-race, leaving his quest unfinished. Big Brown came back to win twice later in the year, confirming his talent. He simply could not handle the Triple Crown schedule.

The next near miss, I'll Have Another, never even started in the Belmont because of a sore tendon. He had raced only five times entering the Triple Crown.

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