The biggest question that has been asked the most during the past two weeks regarding California Chrome is, “Can he do it?”
The California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit stands at the brink of the Triple Crown after convincing victories in the first two legs of the series at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Yet, his detractors continue to harp on a pedigree built for speed and not stamina and the fatigue factor that comes along with the grueling series of three races within five weeks.
The talented colt has already proven he can run a route of distance with his wins in the Derby and the Preakness and within his bloodlines lies subtle hints of endurance that trace back to Belmont winner A.P. Indy and the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew on his sire side. His broodmare sire is a half-brother to a former Travers Stakes winner, so even his dam side has some stamina influence.
As far as fatigue, the race that expended the most energy from the colt had to be the Preakness where jockey Victor Espinoza was forced to cue his horse much earlier than normal due to the pressure from Social Inclusion. The importance fatigue plays is one of the bigger questions heading into the final leg at Big Sandy next weekend in addition to how Espinoza handles the pressure of a potential Triple Crown attempt.
Earlier this week jockey Steve Cauthen of the last Triple Crown champion, Affirmed, spoke of the similarities of his horse and California Chrome and the relationship Espinoza has with his horse to the national racing media. “I think he’s very well connected with California Chrome, they’ve got a great relationship. You know, the horse obviously is fun to watch because it reminds me a lot of Affirmed,” said Cauthen.
Cauthen thinks he has a major chance to end the 36-year Triple Crown drought in a big way. “I mean he’s got all the talent. Tactically he’s in great shape. It’s a question of if he can really stay a mile and a half. To me, he looks just like a freak horse, but, you know, he can probably do things that are beyond his breeding. So, you know, I’m looking for him to really pull it off,” said Cauthen.
If Chrome can’t do it, which colts are the most likely contenders to stamp out his chance for racing history? The following are some of the upset candidates in the Belmont Stakes:
Ride On Curlin: The son of Curlin, winner of a Breeders’ Cup Classic and Preakness and second-place finisher in the 2007 Belmont, was gaining ground on Chrome in both of the first two classics. Does this mean he has the drive to overtake him in deep stretch in the mile and a half Belmont? He has the dangerous combination of stamina and speed in his pedigree, but still hasn’t broken through with a signature victory. Those factors make him a tough call to end up in the winner’s circle.
Commanding Curve: The late closing second-place finisher in the Derby is sired by Master Command, a son of A.P. Indy (that name again), a former Belmont champion. When The News spoke with West Point Thoroughbreds’ managing partner Terry Finley on the track after the Derby, the Belmont was clearly in his sights just moments after his eye-opening run on the outside to claim second in Louisville. The negative is that deep closers typically don’t play a big factor in the Belmont. The last two deep closers to win were Jazil in 2006 and Birdstone in the 2004 Derby denying Smarty Jones his bid for the Triple Crown. He could be a factor based on the pace scenario.
Wicked Strong: Sired by Hard Spun, who did not disappoint his backers in any of the 2007 Triple Crown races, this colt would also benefit from a quick early pace with his late closing style. He was banged around in the Derby and had a difficult outside post position, so there are excuses to be made, even though he still finished fourth. His dam, Moyne Abbey was sired by a Derby-Preakness winner, Charismatic, who finished third in the Belmont, breaking down just past the wire. He will take serious money at the windows, but remember deep closers have struggled at Big Sandy in the Belmont, so let the buyer beware.
Medal Count: When it was announced this week that his connections would enter him in the Belmont, California Chrome’s quest became all the more difficult. Medal Count was making significant progress in the Derby and would have likely finished third, had he not been cut off by the third-place finisher, Danza. He was being touted by many astute handicappers for the Derby based on his pedigree, and he shouldn’t be discounted in here. He is another who really hasn’t asserted himself in the winner’s circle, but crazier things have happened on Belmont day (see Da’Tara, circa 2008). The son of Dynaformer, the sire of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, has the tools to win on paper.
Tonalist: A new shooter to the Triple Crown trail who won the Grade 2 Peter Pan on a sloppy track, a prep race at Belmont Park. He appears to be one of the buzz horses coming into the Belmont, but be cautioned that newcomers to the Triple Crown series rarely fare well. Last year’s Peter Pan winner Freedom Child also won that race in the slop and failed miserably in the Belmont. His damsire, Pleasant Colony, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but faltered at Belmont, finishing third. His sire, Tapit is more of a miler-type, but going back two generations you will find that name again, A.P. Indy. He will become a consideration only if there is an off-track on Belmont day.
Commissioner: The second-place finisher in the Peter Pan did not have enough points to qualify for the Derby, thus he’s making his first appearance in the Triple Crown series. He is sired by A.P. Indy and his damsire is Touch Gold, the 1997 upset winner over Silver Charm, denying him the Triple Crown. Those two factors alone will have him in the mix as a potential upset candidate. You can come up with excuses for his last two outings where he bobbled at the start of the Sunland Derby and finished third, and his Peter Pan was in sloppy conditions, his first attempt on an off-track. He definitely has the goods to beat top horses.
The million-dollar question remains with respect to California Chrome, whether he can join that elusive Triple Crown club that currently only has 11 members. His competition looks to be as tough as he’s faced to date. However, you can’t measure heart or intangibles in the pedigree or speed figures, so don’t discount what this horse has already accomplished.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.