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It's been a long and unlikely ride for jockey Victor Espinoza, who's getting a second shot at winning the Triple Crown after losing the Belmont Stakes 12 years ago. John Cádiz Klemack spent with the day with the Sierra Madre resident as he prepares for the big race for the NBC4 News at 6 on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.
California Chrome’s quest to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 36 years has energized the sport and is sure to draw millions of viewers who have been inspired by the colt’s humble beginnings.
In the years since the last Triple Crown winner, the 12 horses that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, stammered before they reached the finish line or even the starting gate at New York’s Belmont Park.
As California Chrome tries to make history on June 7 at the Belmont Stakes, a high-powered field will try to dash his chance at the crown. According to Richard Migliore, a retired jockey who’s an analyst for the New York Racing Association, the 146th Belmont Stakes could be “the greatest day for horse racing in North America” if California Chrome captures the crown. It could also set the stage for a first-ever Triple Crown-winner to compete in the Breeder's Cup this fall.
“We have a horse that can win the Triple Crown,” said Migliore. “If you think about it in this context: every year there’s a Stanley Cup winner, every year there’s a Super Bowl championship winner, but the Triple Crown win happens only once in a while. It’s exciting even if you’re a casual fan to witness history. Within our industry, this is one of the classic races that everyone aspires to compete in. The purse is huge too. You can put all of that together and it’s a special event.”
Here are ten things to know about the Belmont Stakes
Belmont Stakes is the oldest and the most grueling of the Triple Crown races:
The mile-and-a-half Belmont Park is the world’s largest dirt track making it the most taxing of the Triple Crown races. It demands more stamina than the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby or the 1 3/6-mile Preakness Stakes that come before it. The distance is a main reason why so few horses manage to win all three races.
“Its immense size can trick jockeys into launching premature moves,” said NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss. “On conventional one-mile ovals, riders will typically ask mounts for maximum effort somewhere around the midway point of the final turn – but at that stage of the Belmont Stakes, the finish is still a full half-mile away and the jockeys must remain patient.”
Migliore pointed out that previous experience racing at Belmont Park– something California Chrome has not done – is a big advantage.
“Out of the 11 Triple Crown winners, all competed at Belmont Park before the final Triple Crown race,” Migliore said. Obviously California Chrome needs to win, but he never ran at Belmont before.”
Top Belmont contenders:
Ten to eleven horses will run in this year’s Belmont Stakes (the entry deadline is 72 hours before the race) and experts say that four horses have emerged as California Chrome’s top opponents: Wicked Strong, Tonalist, Commanding Curve and Ride on Curlin.
Tonalist is a new horse and he hasn’t competed in any of the Triple Crown races, according to Migliore who has observed the contenders at Belmont Park. “He’s the horse that everyone should fear because he’s bread to get a mile and half, he has a body type to get a mile and a half.”
Wicked Strong, said Moss, was one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby and came in fourth. He is a New York-based horse that has a home-track advantage.
Commanding Curve, meanwhile, was a runner up in the Derby and his strong finish showed that “the mile and a half should give him an even better chance” at winning the Belmont, according to Migliore.
Ride on Curlin came in second in the Preakness and is also considered a threat, Moss said.
California Chrome’s strengths:
California Chrome has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown because he is adaptable and maneuverable and is capable of developing speed really fast. Jockey Victor Espinoza rides the colt as if he was driving a race car, Moss said, and he can tell the horse when to accelerate and when he should settle back down.
“When he’s ready to make the final push to the wire, he’s got this huge burst of acceleration and he just opens up away from the competition,” Moss said, adding that his burst of speed “demoralizes the competition, usually at or nearing the top of the stretch.”
Another of California Chrome’s strengths is that he is willing to do what the jockey is asking him to do. “You can’t say that about all race horses, they can get pretty opinionated,” Moss said. “But California Chrome has acquiesced to what Victor Espinoza wants him to do even if he wanted to do something else.”
California Chrome's Achilles’ heel?
The California-bred colt is coming off a six-race winning streak, but he has several weaknesses that could impede his historic run. The colt doesn’t like when dirt gets in his face. Several times in his early career, he ended up behind horses with kickback hitting his face, and “he very demonstrably hated it,” said Moss.
“The last two times California Chrome had to deal with dirt in his face, he finished 6th in both races – his last two defeats," Moss explained. It’s part of the reason why Espinoza makes such obvious effort to “steer California Chrome as quickly as possible to the outside, and away from the flying dirt,” Moss added.
Chrome has also been known to have started slowly out of the gate in several races in his career because he rocks forward and back, “his head cocked far to the left instead of looking straight ahead,” Moss said. “Even so, in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he sprang from the gate like a cheetah.”
Many horses that have ran in the Kentucky Derby, skip the Preakness Stakes and get extra rest before the Belmont Stakes. According to Moss, only one of the last 12 Belmont winners ran in both the Derby and Preakness. Of the challengers to California Chrome in this year’s Belmont, all but one, Ride on Curlin, have the advantage of a less-demanding racing schedule, Moss said. For several horses, like Tonalist, Belmont Stakes is the first race of the Triple Crown.
Past Triple Crown winners:
Patrice Wolfson who owned the most recent Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, with her late husband Louis and 92-year-old Penny Chenery, who owned 1973 champion Secretariat, are both planning to attend Belmont Stakes, according to The Associated Press.
"If this horse can win the Triple Crown, I want to be there," Chenery told the AP about California Chrome.
The jockeys who rode atop the last three Triple Crown winners will be watching the race from the stands, too: Steve Cauthen (Affirmed), Jean Cruget (Seattle Slew) and Ron Turcotte (Secretariat).
Victor Espinoza's second chance:
Victor Espinoza fell one race short of the Triple Crown 12 years ago, but he now has a chance at redemption aboard California Chrome. Espinoza, 42, was riding on War Emblem at the 2002 Belmont Stakes but his horse stumbled to his knees at the start and never made up for lost time.
"In a million years I didn't think I was going to have a second chance," Espinoza told The Associated Press. "I was very close once. Life goes on. But after a decade, here we go. I'm here again."
Other Belmont races on June 7?
In addition to $1.5 million Belmont Stakes there will be other nationally-prominent races, featuring many of the country’s best racehorses: $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap, $1 million Manhattan Stakes, $1 million Ogden Phipps Stakes, $750,000 Acorn Stakes and $750,000 Just a Game Stakes. A total of 10 stakes races will be run on Belmont day, worth a total of $7.7 million in purse value.
Will the weather cooperate?
Rain before or during the race will not only put a damper on the festivities at Belmont Park, it can potentially ruin California Chrome's chances.
“He’s never ran a race on anything rather than a dry racing surface,” Moss said. “A lot of these horses have experience with a wet racetrack but California Chrome has never had to run on a muddy racetrack.”
Are there any other races after Belmont?
The three-year-old horses competing in the Triple Crown don't simply retire. Trainers normally give horses some rest and then they might race them in Saratoga or in the Breeder's Cup in the fall, Moss said. There are also plenty of horse racing events after horses turn four and older. Palace Malice, which won the Belmont last year, is running in this year's Metropolitan Handicap.