We come to this place in search of greatness.
Through the echoing halls and spacious tree-lined Belmont Park backstretch we roam, and in the days before the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) we wonder—could this horse be the one?
With every potential winner, every story of assorted connections, and the paths they took to get here, our faith begins to rise. Something about every Triple Crown hopeful, every year with our sport's greatest prize on the line, gives most of us that inkling. Surely, it is time.
If California Chrome gallops around the sweeping turns of Big Sandy June 7 and into hundreds upon thousands of hearts as the 12th Triple Crown winner in history and the first since 1978, it will be against the reputation of the modern Thoroughbred—that fragile beast who dazzles with great performances but just as quickly disappoints, then vanishes to greener pastures.
If 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman finds the Belmont winner's circle it will be a nod to old-school horse-sense, a testament to the promise that good things come to those who work hard to make an honest living. Along with sons Steve and Alan—the latter his assistant on a six-week tour de force from home on the Triple Crown trail with the 3-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit —and Faye, his wife of 53 years, the California horseman comes to Belmont with a lucky dollar in his pocket, mailed to him by a fan of his strapping chestnut before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"You think about it, 36 years, nobody's won the Triple Crown; it would be quite an honor," the veteran conditioner said. "If you would have said to me the first of the year that I would be on the Triple Crown trail, I would've said, 'Ah, you're kidding me.' So here I am, hoping that we can get the final race; it would mean a lot to racing, I can tell you that."
If first-time owners and breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin hoist that Triple Crown trophy it will give a heady boost of confidence to the "little guy," a reinforcement of the sentiment that makes this game a great one: a good horse can come from anywhere, at any time. Before California Chrome was born, Coburn had a dream of four white feet and a brilliant blaze, and modest broodmare Love the Chase delivered. Then Martin mapped out a plan to get the horse to the Derby. Step by step, each piece of the puzzle fell into place—and the story carried on for a win in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), this journey beyond their wildest imaginations.
"It's kind of amazing," Alan Sherman said. "How do you map out a trail to the Kentucky Derby when he's 2 years old? Things don't usually work out like that."
California Chrome is the 3-5 favorite on the Belmont Stakes morning line, set to break from post 2 with jockey Victor Espinoza in the irons, that rider with a second chance to take the Crown after missing with War Emblem in 2002. The California-bred colt puts a six-race win streak on the line, those victories secured by a combined 27 1/2 lengths. Like the 10 other 3-year-olds who will line up against him, he has never gone 1 1/2 miles.
"Actually, I feel better about this race than I have any other race, to be honest with you," Art Sherman said. "Just looking at the horse...I see how far he's advanced. I know that it'll be tough to go a mile and a half, but this horse is a good horse. I think he's the real McCoy.
"I know there's a lot of fresh horses taking shots at (him); he's going to have a target on his back...(but) they'd better worry about (California Chrome), I can tell you that."
You can list the rivals who will tackle the stalwart colt in order of the morning-line odds they've been assigned to win the race.
There is 6-1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong, a hot-headed Hard Spun colt who has New York trainer Jimmy Jerkens putting cotton in the colt's ears, schooling him carefully to tame his excitable nature. With a slew of Boston natives cheering for his success, his jockey, Rajiv Maragh, thinks they have a brilliant chance after a good fourth in the Derby May 3 at Churchill Downs.
SHULMAN: Wicked Strong Unites New York and Boston
There is 8-1 Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) victor Tonalist, whose trainer Christophe Clement is best known for success with turf horses. Yet his Tapit colt's bloodlines trace back to 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero Pleasant Colony, who made his own bid for Triple Crown success only to have it dashed like so many others in the Belmont.
There is 12-1 Ride On Curlin, the tough-as-nails competitor who ran in January, February, March, April, and twice in May, but seems to be thriving on this hard-knocking schedule for trainer Billy Gowan as the one-horse stable of owner Dan Dougherty. The Curlin colt you saw closing hard to get within 1 1/2 lengths of California Chrome in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course? That was him.
Then you climb into double-digit odds, the teens and beyond, and still there are horses who could figure. Commanding Curve, by Master Command, was second by 1 3/4 lengths in the Derby for trainer Dallas Stewart and West Point Thoroughbreds.
WinStar Farm's Commissioner has the perfect pedigree, A.P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare. Trainer Todd Pletcher sees the Belmont potential in him and in Eclipse Thoroughbreds' Matterhorn, another son of Tapit who must take a leap up but figures to get the distance. General a Rod fought hard down in Florida in the winter and early spring, but the Roman Ruler colt must regain a step after an 11th in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness.
You could make a case for Spendthrift's Dynaformer runner Medal Count, a troubled eighth in the Derby for Dale Romans. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott uncharacteristically puts maiden winner Matuszak, by Bernardini , into the deep end. New York-bred Samraat, a son of recently deceased Noble Causeway, seeks to become the first to take his home state's classic since Forester in 1882. Only three of his kind have done it, all back in the annals of history.
The 146th running of the Belmont is slated as race 11 of 13 with an approximate post time of 6:52 p.m. EDT. For those who cannot be in New York, NBC has extended its coverage with a main broadcast scheduled from 4:30-7 p.m. EDT, preceded by a 2:30-4:30 p.m. program on NBC Sports Network and followed by a post-race show on that channel beginning at 7 p.m.
A tremendous selection of graded stakes races filled with top horses peppers the card, including a showdown between two-time champion Beholder and 2013 Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Princess of Sylmar in the $1 million Ogden Phipps (gr. I) and the return of 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice in the $1,250,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I). But none of those runners bear the weight of history. They are not running for eternal greatness like California Chrome.
Join those who have tracked the shooting star journey of this unlikely hero, and watch his bid in the Belmont. You don't have to like him. You can even pick against. But think about it. What would you do if this time, hopes were fulfilled and the hype turned out real? What would you do if he won the Triple Crown?
|Belmont Stakes (gr. I) $1,500,000 Guaranteed|
|1||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale L. Romans||20-1|
|2||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman||3-5|
|3||Matterhorn||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher||30-1|
|4||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart||15-1|
|5||Ride On Curlin||John Velazquez||William Gowan||12-1|
|6||Matuszak||Mike Smith||Bill Mott||30-1|
|7||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette||20-1|
|8||Commissioner||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher||20-1|
|9||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens||6-1|
|10||General a Rod||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker||20-1|
|11||Tonalist||Joel Rosario||Christophe Clement||8-1|