If you're planning to bet against Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome, keep repeating this mantra: Fresh horses win the Belmont Stakes. Because they do. Its last eight winners sat out the Preakness, and only Ride On Curlin and General a Rod will be challenging "Chromie" for the third time Saturday.
Billy Turner, 74, is the only living trainer with a Triple Crown trophy, thanks to all-time great Seattle Slew in 1977. Turner has been based at Belmont Park for more than 40 years and understands the dynamics of "The Test of the Champion" as well as anybody.
"I think some of the horses who skipped the Preakness will be formidable foes," Turner said. That doesn't mean he thinks California Chrome can't beat Kentucky Derby also-rans Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, Samraat and Medal Count, as well as Tonalist and any of the others that didn't run in the first two legs.
Besides his clear edge in class and speed figures, Turner sees California Chrome's even temperament and versatile running style as major advantages. "Nothing excites him, and he won't get caught up in a speed duel," Turner said. "I think it's going to boil down to being a riders' race, so it's going to be where [Victor Espinoza] decides to move, and it will go from there."
If a breeder could program three traits into an unborn foal, they would be tactical speed, willingness to rate and push-button acceleration. California Chrome has all three. Espinoza won the 2002 Derby and Preakness on need-to-lead War Emblem, whose Triple Crown bid was doomed as the gates opened. After he stumbled badly and was bumped hard at the start, Espinoza had to rush him to the front. Although he led after a mile, he faded to eighth.
"I'm more confident this time," Espinoza said. "War Emblem had only one way to go: in the front. It was not that easy to ride him, which is typical when you have a front-running horse. You don't have any options, and if something happens, that's it. Your chances are gone.
"With California Chrome, I have a lot of options. I think I have a better chance than I did in 2002 because I have a different kind of horse."
Yet the 1 1/2-mile marathon and the cumulative effects of three races in five weeks can bring down any thoroughbred. Jimmy Jerkens, who trains Wicked Strong, acknowledges it will be tough to beat the odds-on favorite.
"Obviously, California Chrome is going to have to have a bad day," Jerkens said. "The Triple Crown is a hard grind, especially for the modern-day horse. So it'll take a combination of things to beat him, that's for sure."
Standouts Smarty Jones and Big Brown failed in the Belmont. One-hit wonders Sarava, Jazil, Da' Tara and Ruler On Ice succeeded. On paper, California Chrome looks unbeatable, yet there's only one sure thing in racing: You never know.
Belmont work tab. Wicked Strong (5 furlongs in 59.17 seconds on the training track) and Commanding Curve (4 furlongs, 47.20, main track) were the workout stars Sunday morning. Other main-track workers were Matuszak (5 furlongs, 1:00.92); Matterhorn (4 furlongs, 49.74), Commissioner (49.94) and Ride On Curlin (7 furlongs, 1:28.03) . . . California Chrome walked around his barn the day after his brilliant half-mile work . . . Owner Ron Sanchez is expected to announce Social Inclusion's Belmont status Monday.