By Gene Menez
War Emblem stumbled, and Big Brown crumbled. Real Quiet failed at the finish line, and I'll Have Another failed to even make the starting gate. Since Affirmed became the 11th horse to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978, 12 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes only to fail in the Belmont. The factors contributing to those failures have included everything from jockey error to a safety pin, and there often has been more than one factor.
Barring another I'll Have Another-style pre-race injury, California Chrome will try to end the Triple Crown's 35-year drought in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. With an average pedigree and Average Joe owners, this horse is 1½ miles away from joining the likes of War Admiral, Citation and Secretariat.
"I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race," says Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman. But Chrome will need more than Sherman's positive energy to pass the Test of the Champion. The handsome chestnut colt will need to avoid the pitfalls that tripped up the Doomed Dozen. The odds lean in California Chrome's favor.
A colt from $1,500 sire Lucky Pulpit, who never won beyond 5½ furlongs, and dam Love the Chase, who was a low-level claiming horse, California Chrome's pedigree does not scream 1½ miles. He is, however, a great grandson of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, and Chrome's performances in the Derby and Preakness suggest he can cover more ground. Commissioner's sire and dam both were Belmont winners, and other horses also will have better pedigrees for the Belmont distance. But pedigree alone does not win the Test of the Champion.
Rival trainers agree that the biggest question surrounding any of the horses is the ability to go 12 furlongs. "Some horses absolutely do not want to go a mile and a half, and then some horses will thrive on it," says Billy Gowan, trainer of Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin. "So it kind of depends on the horse."
If Chrome fails to win the Triple Crown, the distance is most likely to be his pitfall. "I always wonder," Sherman said last week, "one thing is stamina, going a mile and a half after running all these tough races."
Concern level: elevated.
Sometimes the Derby-Preakness winner is simply outrun in the Belmont. In 1989, Sunday Silence was crushed by eight lengths by rival Easy Goer, who was every bit Sunday Silence's equal and racing on his home track. Eight years later, the hard-battling Silver Charm entered the top of the stretch with a slight lead over Free House and seemed to have the race won. But Touch Gold, who might have beaten Silver Charm in the Preakness had he not stumbled out of the gate, rallied on the far outside behind the smart handling of jockey Chris McCarron, to deny Silver Charm the Triple Crown. In 2003, the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide was a flop in the slop, splashing home in third behind the regally bred Empire Maker, who many had considered the real Triple Crown threat entering the Kentucky Derby.
The best candidate for an upset this year is the biggest unknown in the race: Tonalist, a grand-looking son of Tapit, who has run just four times, handily winning the Peter Pan Stakes by four lengths. He could be an athletic freak who is rounding into form at just the right time, yet Sherman doesn't seem concerned. "I think the people that are running against [California Chrome] got to worry about him, not me worry about any of the other horses," he says.
Concern level: guarded.
If not for jockey error, the world may already have 14 or more Triple Crown champions. Widely considered the best Derby-Preakness winner to not win the Belmont, Spectacular Bid entered the 1979 Test of the Champion as an overwhelming 1-to-5 favorite. But on the morning of the race, a safety pin was discovered in one of the horse's hooves, according to trainer Buddy Delp. The existence of the pin has been questioned for years, but what cannot be debated is that 19-year-old jockey Ronnie Franklin rushed The Bid to the lead prematurely on the backstretch, leaving him empty for the stretch drive. Though he won 26 of 30 races in his career, Spectacular Bid faded to third in the Belmont.
In 1987, favorite Alysheba was rated in mid-pack by jockey Chris McCarron, even though trainer Jack Van Berg wanted the horse on the lead. At the head of the stretch, Alysheba was bumped sideways, but by that time he was far behind eventual winner Bet Twice, who won by 14 lengths; Alysheba finished fourth. McCarron has admitted to riding Alysheba poorly that day but says the ride didn't "cost him 14 lengths."
Eleven years later, Real Quiet and jockey Kent Desormeaux opened up a four-length lead at the top of the stretch. The problem? There was still 3/16 of a mile to go. Desormeaux had moved Real Quiet too soon, a common miscalculation among inexperienced jockeys at the 1½-mile oval, which is about a half mile longer than Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Real Quiet was caught at the wire by the late-running Victory Gallop, who won by a nose at the only moment he was in front. "When we talk about it, it stings," Desormeaux recently told HRTV. "It's like one of those things [where] you'd like a do-over."
Jockey Victor Espinoza is 6-for-6 aboard California Chrome. Though he is based in Southern California, Espinoza has ridden 65 races at Belmont Park (most famously in the 2002 Belmont Stakes), so the track's extra-large configuration will not be new to him. "He's a pretty intelligent rider," Sherman says, "and I'm sure he'll do a great job."
Concern level: low.
The Belmont is not only the horse's third race in five weeks; it usually is also at least his fifth race in four months. (California Chrome will be making his seventh start in five-plus months without a layoff.) By the time a Derby-Preakness winner arrives in New York, he already has gone through a rigorous campaign.
In the 1981 Belmont, Pleasant Colony was wide on both turns and never looked like a winner, finishing third by 1½ lengths to Summing, who did not race in either the Derby or Preakness. Boisterous trainer John Campo blamed fatigue. "He had a hard race in the Preakness," Campo said, years after the race. "He came out of the race fine, but he was a tired horse, and you can't win the Belmont with a tired horse."
Immediately after the 2004 Belmont, in which the popular Smarty Jones was passed by Birdstone in the final strides, there were many reasons given for his failure as the 2-to-5 favorite. Journeyman jockey Stewart Elliott was criticized for moving too early; Smarty Jones ran the fastest middle half-mile (46.62 seconds) in Belmont Stakes history, leaving him ripe to be caught at the finish. Jockeys Jerry Bailey (aboard Eddington) and Alex Solis (on Rock Hard Ten) hounded Smarty Jones down the backstretch, sacrificing their mounts in the process. After the race, Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, said the horse failed because he was "too sharp" and thus not able to relax when pressed. In recent years, however, Servis has opened up about that Belmont, saying that Smarty Jones was a tired horse entering the race.
If California Chrome is tiring, he did not look like it on Saturday after breezing four furlongs in an easy 47 3/5 seconds and galloping out seven furlongs in 1:26 1/5 seconds in preparation for the race. The work has clockers raving about the colt's fitness level and suggests that the horse is not trending in the wrong direction.
"I know my horse is coming into this race great," Sherman says, "and if it's meant to be it's meant to be."
Concern level: low.
This is a scenario that everyone wants to avoid -- even California Chrome's rivals. In 1999, as his mount Charismatic entered the tunnel leading to the track at Belmont Park, jockey Chris Antley held up three fingers in front of his chest, in plain sight of the fans -- a bold gesture of confidence that the radiant, chestnut colt would complete the Triple Crown. Barely 20 minutes later, 60 yards past the finish line, Antley was holding up Charismatic's left foreleg, which suffered multiple fractures as he finished third. How much the injury affected the horse during the race is impossible to determine, but it certainly did not help.
Nine years later, Big Brown left the starting gate as a heavy 3-to-10 favorite but was eased by Desormeaux around the far turn. The circumstances around the undefeated colt's failure have been debated -- excuses range from the temperature in the mid-90s to being bumped leaving the gate -- but Desormeaux cites the horse's quarter-crack issues, which forced him to miss training between the Preakness and Belmont. "Big Brown was dealing with a lot of adversity -- everyone knows about the foot. No foot, no horse," he said in 2009. He added, "There were several moments we didn't even know if he was going to run."
In 2012, I'll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont -- and subsequently retired -- on the day before the race, after tendinitis was discovered in his left foreleg.
Though injuries can pop up at any time, Chrome has raced 12 times without any issues, and Sherman has often noted his soundness. "I just can't tell you what a pleasure it is to train a horse like him," he says. "It's so much easier than having to worry about some $50,000 claimer that's got a knee and an ankle and different issues on him, and you have to keep them going and keep them sound. It's a pleasure to be around a horse that's got so much class and is 100 percent. I've got to pinch myself every once in a while."
Concern level: low.
War Emblem's chance to win the Triple Crown in 2002 ended right as it started. Ridden by Espinoza, War Emblem stumbled coming out of the gate, almost going down completely. Though he recovered and even surged to the lead entering the far turn, the one-dimensional frontrunner had used up too much energy and quickly crashed to eighth. "I was using the horse early," Espinoza said. "It cost me everything at the start."
Only the Racing Gods know whether luck will be on California Chrome's side on Saturday.
Concern level: low.
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Gene Menez is a writer and editor who spent 14 years at Sports Illustrated, covering dozens of sublime performances (Tiger Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open; Steph Curry in the '08 NCAA Tournament) and fantastic finishes ('99 Ryder Cup; '04 Belmont Stakes). He lives with his beautiful wife and baby girl in Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter at @genemenez.