The Triple Crown will prove a cruel tease once more. Wicked Strong will run past California Chrome in the stretch to win Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and deny the latter immortality.
The past 11 Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winners lost the Belmont. Many were better than California Chrome — like Sunday Silence, Smarty Jones and Big Brown.
The racing gods protect the immortal club from pretenders. Weird things happen in the Belmont. Charismatic broke his leg in the stretch. War Emblem fell out of the starting gate. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin that morning.
California Chrome has won six straight races and is the nation’s best 3-year-old colt. But that won’t mean anything on Saturday. The 1½-mile track is the nation’s longest stakes race and a horse with poor breeding like California Chrome will get exposed. Jockeys often move too soon at the top of the stretch, like Chris McCarron’s ill-fated ride on Alysheba in 1987.
And upsets await on the “Big Sandy” as many Derby runners rest five weeks for the Belmont, while the champion also runs in the Preakness. California Chrome seems to have come out of two quick races in fine form, but more time between the races would make things more fair. After all, eight Triple Crown champions won in time frames different than the present setup of three races in five weeks.
California Chrome is the smart money, though betting a 3-5 favorite is a poor financial risk. The colt has been remarkably consistent and a strong finisher. He certainly could become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
But there are several enticing reasons to pick Wicked Strong. He was a fast-finishing fourth in the Derby after a poor start. This colt is every bit the stretch runner as California Chrome. Wicked Strong skipped the Preakness, so he’s rested. Trainer James Jerkens is the son of legendary trainer Allen Jerkens, known as the “Giant Killer” for his upsets of Secretariat and Kelso. Something tells me father and son huddled over this race.
The 11-horse field has some talent. Ride On Curlin has hit the board nine of 11 starts — winning only twice, though. He’s the third-place triple pick. Tonalist ran a huge race in his last start and could be a major contender in summer races. Commanding Curve is a nice long-shot bet with his late move.
But look for California Chrome and Wicked Strong to run together at the 16th pole before Wicked Strong pulls away in the final yards for a 9-2-5 triple.
A Triple Crown champion? Maybe next year.