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California Chrome can make history, with Medal Count a surprising second

Exercise rider Willie Delgado gallops Kentucky Derby and

Exercise rider Willie Delgado gallops Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome during their workout at Belmont Racetrack in Elmont on May 24, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Sometimes it makes more sense to be Captain Obvious than Major Wise Guy, which is why I'm not stabbing around trying to beat California Chrome.

I don't bet enough to make a win play on a horse likely to go off at odds even punier than his 3-5 morning line, but I'm not picking against him. I thought "Chromie" was clearly the best 3-year-old before the Kentucky Derby, then I foolishly jumped on Intense Holiday, the hyped workout star who finished 12th.

Reminder: Wise-guy horses hardly ever win. I've shredded tickets at 86 tracks in 34 years and still make that rookie mistake. At least I didn't in the Preakness, because I didn't think anybody could beat California Chrome. I feel the same about Saturday's Belmont. There's no way I can make a win bet on him, so I'll hook him up in an exacta with Medal Count, a live 20-1 shot who's being ignored.

If California Chrome becomes the 12th consecutive Triple Crown contender to fail, I can't tell you who will play the villain. Wicked Strong (6-1) and Tonalist (8-1) are the buzz horses to knock him off, and I don't like either one.

Wicked Strong is a deep closer, and the pace won't be fast enough to aid his late kick. A 5-furlong workout in 59 seconds proves he's in form, and Jimmy Jerkens is a very shrewd trainer. Yet it doesn't appear as if the race flow will flatter his colt's style.

Tonalist's stock keeps rising off his four-length romp over a weak field in the 11/8-mile Peter Pan. It was only his fourth career start, and it came on a sloppy track -- there's no chance of rain Saturday -- and turf, not dirt, is Christophe Clement's game. The Frenchman is an elite trainer, but about 90 percent of his nearly 100 stakes victories were on grass.

"I think it's a good thing to come to the Belmont with a fresh horse,'' Clement said, and he's right. The last eight Belmont winners skipped the Preakness. "Tonalist trains like a horse who should stay, and I think he'll handle 11/2miles.'' Well, it wouldn't be a shock if he's right and I'm wrong.

All right, you say, enough about the touted challengers you don't like. Alleged expert, how will the Belmont play out?

I envision Samraat and General a Rod going for the early lead, with California Chrome third and Tonalist fourth. The pace for 11/8 miles is moderate, and the moment of truth comes on the far turn, when Samraat and General a Rod begin to tire. California Chrome spurts away approaching the stretch before the closers start kicking in. That's when Medal Count surges past everybody but California Chrome.

Almost no one has mentioned Medal Count, who's been rested since a troubled-trip eighth in the Derby. Two bullet works at Churchill Downs signal his sharpness, and trainer Dale Romans has many big-race trophies and the 2012 Eclipse Award.

"He should have finished third in the Derby,'' Romans said, "and he's a nice horse who belongs.''

I agree. I'll play a $20 exacta, California Chrome on top of Medal Count, and reverse it for $5 just in case. I can't think of a better result: the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years along with a juicy exacta.

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