If California Chrome fails to complete the Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) June 7, rival trainers Billy Gowan and Dallas Stewart don't believe it will be because the charismatic chestnut runs a clunker. The distance, though, could be the key to beating him.
"To beat California Chrome, I think it's going to take a really good horse to beat him, first of all," says Gowan, who will take a third crack at the Derby/Preakness winner with his muscular colt Ride On Curlin, second in the Preakness (gr. I) May 17. "A little bit of luck, a good trip, and a fast horse is what it's going to take. You don't know which horse will go a mile-and-a-half (the Belmont Stakes distance). It's not something we ask them to do very often."
"You got to want to run a mile-and-a-half and have a good trip," concurred Stewart, who brings back Commanding Curve, runner-up in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), after skipping the Preakness. "We'll see. You can't take anything away from California Chrome, though. He'll be tough to beat.
"These horses are all untested at this distance. It will be a matter of stamina and which horse takes to it."
Gowan and Stewart made their comments separately during a national teleconference hosted by the NTRA May 29.
Ride On Curlin was seventh in the Kentucky Derby before finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind California Chrome while showing good late interest in the Preakness. He continues to progress, Gowan said, keeping a high energy level and maintaining his weight. The son of Curlin is to breeze June 1 at Belmont Park, the trainer said, though the workout could be moved up a day depending on the weather forecast for the weekend.
"Obviously, this is my first time to do this (the Triple Crown trail) but it sure has been a lot of fun," Gowan said. "I'm really proud of the horse; to make every dance and carry it on this far. I definitely think the horse is ready. I've got closer to California Chrome than anyone else has this year. Hopefully, with a little added distance. I think if my horse gets a good, clean run we've got a heck of a chance."
Gowan turns to jockey John Velazquez in the Belmont, replacing Joel Rosario. Including Calvin Borel, Jon Court, and Kent Desormeaux, Velazquez will be the fifth different rider for Ride On Curlin in the past five races.
"I don't think it matters," said Gowan, who conditions Ride On Curlin for owner Daniel Dougherty. "The horse makes the jockey, the trainer, everything. I'm happy to have him (Velazquez). He know the track as well as anyone."
Gowan noted that California Chrome and Ride On Curlin are stabled in the same barn at Belmont Park, just a few stalls away from each other. They also shared a van ride from Pimlico to Elmont, N.Y. "They'll eyeball each other," he laughed.
The trainer said he was not surprised by California Chrome's success in spite of the colt's modest California breeding.
"No, not really because you don't know where a great horse is going to come from," Gowan said. "A great racehorse can come from anywhere. So no, I'm not surprised at all."
Stewart admitted that he had doubted California Chrome prior to the Derby. He said he thought the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner lacked the pedigree, had benefited from California's speed-favoring tracks, and would be short on conditioning due to a lack of strong competition.
"Oh, yeah, I was wrong," Stewart said as California Chrome comes into the Belmont on a six-stakes win streak. "We were just wrong, that's all. The horse is just a runner."
Stewart said that after losing the Derby, Commanding Curve could use some time off prior to the Belmont so he and the connections for West Point Thoroughbreds decided to skip the Preakness. He has been doing well, he added, and will have his final Belmont breeze this weekend as well.
In order for Commanding Curve to be effective in the Belmont, Stewart added, "He needs to be placed well and not be as far back as he was in the Derby," and not be stopped from the quarter pole to home.
The third-place finisher in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) was beaten by 1 3/4 lengths in the Derby after rallying from ninth in the stretch. Commanding Curve's only victory in seven starts came in a maiden special weight Nov. 30 at Churchill Downs.
Stewart thinks it is possible the threat of rain June 7, jockey error, or a huge crowd at Belmont could conspire to cause problems for California Chrome, noting the favorite has enjoyed two perfect trips thus far in the Triple Crown series.
Gowan and Stewart said that unlike Marylou Whitney, who famously apologized after her colt Birdstone thwarted the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont, they would not be similarly moved were they to upset California Chrome.
"Our job is to go out there and win the horse race," Stewart said. "Were California Chrome to win, sure, it's a great thing for racing. But our winning? I don't think it will hurt it any."
"I wasn't able to beat him in the Derby or Preakness," Gowan said. "If I can do it in the Belmont I won't be too upset with it."