California Chrome was much the best in both races because of what I prefer to call “clean trips” rather than “perfect trips.” Clean because he stayed out of trouble but not perfect because — especially in the Preakness — he was fighting every step of the race and turned back all challengers.
That’s a useful distinction, especially in looking ahead to the kind of trip California Chrome might get in the Belmont Stakes. It won’t be perfect, because no one is going to cede a step to the dual classic winner. But clean might not be enough. If Victor Espinoza thought he was a target in the Preakness and had to ride defensively — “I had to start early because the outside horse was pushing me,” said the jockey after the race, “I thought I had the perfect position, but when the outside horse attacked me, I had to open it up at that point” — the Belmont is going to ratchet that pressure up.
The main worry with California Chrome is that he had his stamina exposed in the Derby two weeks ago, where he finished relatively slowly off a steady pace, producing a weak final time (over 1m2f). The expectation is that he will have even less in reserve at the end of the Belmont (over 1m4f).
So stamina is a concern, but so too is class. Sure, the colt has an edge over his contemporaries but so did every other failed Belmont favourite.
When he was trouncing his opposition in the Golden State he looked set to take the world by storm. Back then the sky was the limit, but he hasn’t continued that progress in the Classics. Indeed, his RPRs have plateaued.
At Santa Anita he ran to 124, in the Derby it was 125 and in the Preakness 125 again. We appear to be close to finding the limit of his ability — and in the Derby I think we found the limit of his stamina.
Danza is out of the Belmont. He isn’t 100%; he’ll get some time off.
“… this idea is not just for the Triple Crown races. We have an obligation to the public to put our best racing on the table when the world is watching and we are not doing that. We could promote a Woodford-Dixie-Manhattan series for older turf stars and Triple Crown filly series with the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan and Acorn. All those things are possible but is going to demand a collaborative effort between the parties to make this happen.”
Pimlico’s supporting stakes just aren’t as good, or as attractive to any rational horseman. Until Pimlico throws a ton of money into its supporting Preakness weekend stakes, which in time might attract better fields and result in higher rankings from the North American Graded Stakes Committee, it can’t blame a short turnaround for why their stakes aren’t attracting fields of comparable quality to their counterparts at Churchill.
Get creative, suggests Watchmaker. Nah, writes Pull the Pocket: “It doesn’t really matter.” So Pimlico feels like the odd jewel out during Triple Crown season — it still drew record attendance and increased handle on Saturday.
Two down, one to go, and making history won’t be easy. NYRA released a list of 11 potential Belmont Stakes starters shortly after California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes, including Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve and third-place finisher Danza. They’ll be fresh, as will Wicked Strong (fourth in the Derby) and Samraat (fifth). Ride on Curlin and Social Inclusion, second and third in the Preakness, are also possible for the Belmont, as are Commissioner, Intense Holiday, Kid Cruz, and Peter Pan winner Tonalist.
California Chrome was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 and a new career-top TimeformUS figure of 116 for his Preakness performance. He won his sixth straight race with another perfect trip and yet another display of his awesome ability to accelerate turning into the stretch. “He’s a freak of nature,” trainer Bob Baffert told HRTV after his starter, Bayern, finished ninth in the Preakness. “Nobody’s been able to run with him late.” Call it the California kick.
Here’s the Preakness replay (and chart):
“It was a crazy race,” said jockey Victor Espinoza said afterwards, about the tactical decisions he had to make. “I got more tired mentally than physically.”
The Preakness winner and runner-up were reported to be in good shape on Sunday morning. Trainer Art Sherman hasn’t settled on a plan for California Chrome leading into the Belmont, but said the colt may breeze once before.
One morning last week, Sherman, an impish 77 years old, leaned against a white-railed fence outside a horse barn at Pimlico Race Course. “That Secretariat, what a great horse he was,” he said. “I remember watching him run. All these years I’m thinking, I wonder if I’ll ever have a horse like that.” In the early morning light, Sherman shoved his hands a little deeper into the pockets of his green windbreaker, and looked over the top of his eyeglasses. “Well now,” he said, “maybe I do.” And then he smiled his little crooked smile, full of the impossible.
What is the Triple Crown?
That’s the question that came to mind as I read the Blood-Horse report that Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas plans to start discussions about altering the spacing between the three races after the 2014 season concludes:
“I think the schedule of two weeks between the Derby and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont is passé; it’s done.”
Chuckas plans to propose that the Kentucky Derby remain on the first Saturday in May, with the Preakness Stakes moving to the first weekend in June, and the Belmont Stakes to the first weekend in July. It’s not a new idea — every year, the Triple Crown schedule comes in for criticism as too quick, too demanding, too old-fashioned. Here’s Pat Forde making that argument:
The bleakness of this Preakness field emphasizes a fundamental flaw in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. It is run on an outdated calendar. The turnaround from the first Saturday in May to the third Saturday in May is not something most thoroughbred owners and trainers are interested in trying.
If the Triple Crown is primarily about finding and celebrating a horse who can win all three races — if it’s mostly about the breed, and for us, the game’s most devoted fans and participants — then the series probably should be changed. A schedule that goes four weeks between starts fits how elite horses race now. Tradition has to serve a purpose, or it’s just a fetish.
But I wonder if we’d lose the season, the closest thing on the American racing calendar to a festival, and if we would miss it, the big circus moving from track to track, the one time of the year that the excitement of racing — the possibility of seeing something special — captures the imagination of the broader public. Whatever else the Triple Crown is, it’s a curiosity. Changing the schedule could make it an irrelevance. We might get a Triple Crown winner out of the deal, but we might be the only people partying.
The Derby is the most famous of races, but the Preakness the most revealing … saying that the Preakness distance is more reflective of today’s racing than the Belmont’s doesn’t imply that the 1 3/16 miles at Pimlico, still very long by quotidian standards, is any less testing. Bold Forbes, who won both the Derby and Belmont, couldn’t last in the 1976 Preakness after taking a clear advantage into the stretch. In the Triple Crown, the Preakness, quite simply, is most likely to be a truly run race, and its outcome most likely to reverberate with significance. That’s why 60 percent of its winners since 1964 have been champions and why Saturday’s 139th will define both this year’s Triple Crown and California Chrome.
[Exercise rider Willie] Delgado said California Chrome seemed to prefer the dirt at Pimlico to that at Churchill Downs. “Churchill wasn’t one of his favorite tracks,” he said. “He just tolerated it.”
California Chrome wasn’t drawing raves for the way he went over Churchill’s surface before the Derby — “not the prettiest mover,” observed Mike Welsch, “Jay Privman said he’s certainly looked better back west” — so it’s interesting to see him praised for how he’s handling Pimlico.
Apparently, he’s also feeling fresh (PDF):
California Chrome … didn’t seem to appreciate being shut down for the day after passing a “Sunrise at Old Hilltop” group near the wire after jogging an easy mile. “Settle down … settle down … settle down,” Delgado calmly asked of his charge as he began applying the brakes.
And holding his weight: Trainer Art Sherman estimates that California Chrome “has put on about 35 pounds since winning the Derby,” tweets Claire Novak.
It’s all looking good for Saturday …
5/15/14 Addendum: What’s this? Chrome coughs; his people say he’s fine.
“You know, they’ve all gotten beat,” he said. “People are gonna have to realize [California Chrome] is coming off five victories straight and a lot of [these other] horses are still eligible for conditions. There are no bona fide stakes horses in there.
“If you’ve been in the game as long as I have, you’ve got to prove yourself. You’re not going to get away with an easy-go just because you’re fresh coming into this race. [Chrome] is a seasoned, veteran horse right now coming into these races and I think that’s going to be a big help for him.”
Lukas responded: “When you get so close to one of these Triple Crown races with a good horse you do everything you can to make the race.”
The reporter countered with this remark that ended the press conference: “That sounds great Mr. Lukas, but isn’t it the horse that’s going to have to run around the track on Saturday; not you?”
The way the Preakness Stakes is shaping up, California Chrome won’t meet many of those he beat in the Kentucky Derby again until the Belmont Stakes. That’s the race the Derby winner is most vulnerable, writes Sam Walker:
It is hard to be positive about the Belmont after [his Derby] run. Off such an ideal pace it would have been nice to see that margin of superiority extend ever further to the line, or at least hold true. But the fact is it diminished and over another furlong he might not have won.
The last Belmont quarter can be a killer. Just look at the recent sectional times:
Copyright © 2000-2016 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.