Rajiv Maragh, rider of Wicked Strong.

Rajiv Maragh, rider of Wicked Strong.


Rival Jockeys Have Visions of Beating Chrome

Spoiling the Triple Crown the job of every Belmont rider not named Victor Espinoza.

A crowd of more than 100,000 people is expected at Belmont Park June 7 to witness an attempt by California Chrome  to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years.

It's a safe bet that the vast majority of those fans will be rooting their hearts and lungs out, hoping to see history made on the racetrack. There will be a very important group of 10 individuals, however, hopin to ruin that potential celebration and rocking after-party in the grandstand—they are the riders who will oppose jockey Victor Espinoza and his mount's bid at greatness.

"My job is to win the race, not to see somebody else win," said John Velazquez, who will be aboard Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin . "I'm going out there to ride the best race possible and to beat (California Chrome) for my connections. That's what makes winning the Triple Crown so difficult and exciting. It's the integrity of the race."

Rajiv Maragh, who reins TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong  (coming off a fourth in the grade I Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands), also hopes to send the crowd home unhappy.

"If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown it would be great for racing. But if Wicked Strong was to win (the Belmont Stakes), it would be great for my career and his connections," said Maragh, who has had visions of such a victory. "Most likely (California Chrome) will be in front of us early on. So to beat him, we'll have to go by in the stretch. I've had a couple of dreams the last few nights that I pass him."

Though Edgar Prado doesn't have a mount in this year's Belmont Stakes, he ruined the party for over 120,000 spectators in 2004 when he denied Smarty Jones  the Triple Crown, running him down in deep stretch atop Birdstone .

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"It was a bittersweet victory," Prado said. "At the quarter pole, I could hear the roar of the crowd. It was so loud. It was an amazing feeling to hear it. When I was getting closer to (Smarty Jones) in the stretch, it was getting much quieter. It was heart-breaking because by the time I passed the wire (in front), there was complete silence. It was what I had to do (win the race). But it was sad to see people with tears in their eyes."

Prado also denied Victor Espinoza and War Emblem the Triple Crown in 2002 in front of more than 103,000 fans, though in much less dramatic fashion. He scored aboard 70-1 longshot Sarava, while War Emblem finished far back in eighth after a severe stumble at the start.

Will Prado be rooting for Espinoza and California Chrome on Saturday?

"Yes. Definitely," Prado remarked. "We all want to see a Triple Crown. But that doesn't mean (the opposing riders) won't be doing their jobs."

Or that the other riders won't be openly enjoying the fruits of their spoils should they defeat the crowd favorite.

"I will have the biggest smile on my face that I can have (in the winner's circle). Even if the crowd boos me, I don't care," said Velazquez. "Now if I wasn't riding, I definitely would root for him. But being in the race, it's the complete opposite for me. I have to move aside all of those feelings about the history that would come if (California Chrome) wins."

Maragh concurs with his rival. "It's difficult to approach the race as a spectator and not a participant. But if I wasn't in the race, I'd be cheering for California Chrome."

The highly-competitive Velazquez, who has won the Belmont on both Union Rags  and Rags to Riches, said simply, "If (California Chrome) gets beat, I hope that it's me who beats him."