Over the last five weeks, California Chrome has become a national sensation and Saturday’s 146th running of the Belmont Stakes will center around his pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown.
The three-year-old colt bred for $10,500 to two couples who had never owned a race horse, much less participated in high stakes racing, could be the first to lay claim to the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
But the horse nicknamed “Junior” by Steve and Carolyn Coburn and Perry and Denise Martin, could also be the first California-bred horse to complete the seemingly improbable feat after already becoming the first from his native state to win the Preakness and the fourth all-time to win the Kentucky Derby.
His trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, was already the youngest to ever prep a Derby winner, and could further cement his place in history after beginning his career as a jockey decades ago.
Described as observant and considered a bit of a character who likes to pose for pictures, odds makers have still put California Chrome as the heavy favorite to win his seventh straight race, but many horses have seen their Triple Crown bids come to a screeching halt at the much longer 1 1 /2-mile dirt track at Belmont Park before.
In the last 36 years, only 12 horses have made it as far as California Chrome. The last could have been I’ll Have Another in 2012, whose connections scratched him the night before the Belmont due to a leg injury. In 2008, Big Brown didn’t even finish the Belmont, and from 2002 to 2004 War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, respectively, faded down the final stretch. Smarty Jones was the closest after finishing second to Birdstone.
A crowd of more than 100,000 is expected at Belmont this year, and in previous years when a Triple Crown was in play the track handled as much as $110 million in wagers. A purse of $1.5 million is also up for grabs, but the glory of the Triple Crown is far more valuable.
The pressure is clearly mounting on California Chrome, but there’s plenty riding on the back of jockey Victor Espinoza. The 42-year-old was aboard War Emblem in 2002, and he erased a poor start out of the gate to take hold of first with 5 1 /2 furlongs to go until slipping way back just before the final turn and finishing eighth.
With Espinoza also trying to redeem his poor run at Belmont 12 years ago, California Chrome will battle a field made up of the best-of-the-best from the Preakness and Derby, as well as several newcomers.
Finishing a surprising second at second at the Derby with a late kick, Commanding Curve is well rested after sitting out the Preakness but Saturday’s grueling run will be only the second Grade I race of his career.
Ride On Curlin, who many believe could have caught up to California Chrome at the Preakness with a little more time, is blessed with the kind of lineage that in most years would make him the favorite. His sire was Curlin, the highest earning horse in history with $10 million in winnings. Ride On Curlin, General A Rod and California Chrome will be the only horses to compete in all three Triple Crown races this year.
Hailing from Centennial Farms, Wicked Strong was purchased for $375,000 in his yearling and he’s seen as the biggest challenger to California Chrome. He captured the 1 1/ 8 –mile Grade I Wood Memorial in April but sputtered down the stretch at the Derby for a disappointing fourth place.
Some of the newcomers include Tonalist, who’s only run four races, and Matuszak, who’s trainer Bill Mott has started five horses at the Belmont and was the youngest ever inducted into the Hall of Fame at the age of 45.
Post Time: 6:52 p.m. EST
Start Time: Assuming all the entries post on time, the race should start about two to five minutes later.
TV Channel: NBC
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at NBC Live Extra here.