Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome will be a heavy favorite to become racing's 12th Triple Crown champion when he takes on 10 rivals in the 146th renewal of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park.
First run in 1867, the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes is the oldest and longest leg of the Triple Crown. The 2014 edition is 11th on a 13-race card that kicks off with a special 11:35 a.m. post time and features 10 stakes and total purses of $8 million.
Live television coverage will be provided from 2:30-4:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and 4:30-7:30 p.m. on NBC, and include the Grade 1, $750,000 TVG Acorn; Grade 1, $750,000 Longines Just a Game; Grade 1, $1 million Ogden Phipps; Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap; and Grade 1, $1 million Knob Creek Manhattan prior to the Belmont, which has a scheduled post time of 6:52 p.m.
California Chrome is the 13th horse to arrive in New York with the chance to end a record 36-year Triple Crown drought that began after Affirmed outfinished Alydar to win the Belmont by a head in 1978. Most recently, I'll Have Another was retired the day before the 2012 Belmont with a leg injury.
Trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, California Chrome will break from post two as the 3-5 morning-line favorite. Regular rider Victor Espinoza, who was eighth in the 2002 Belmont Stakes on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, is back aboard.
"I feel better about this race than I have any other race, to be honest with you, just looking at the horse and saying, 'Wow,'" Sherman said. "I see how far he's advanced. I know it'll be tougher going a mile and a half, but this horse is a good horse. I think he's the real McCoy. They better worry about me, I can tell you that."
Owned by Steven Coburn and Perry Martin, California Chrome has reeled off six consecutive victories, including the Grade 2 San Felipe and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby prior to the Triple Crown. Only two California-bred horses have ever won the Belmont, and none since Africander in 1903.
The largest field of any Triple Crown year came in 1977, when Seattle Slew beat seven challengers to stay undefeated. Since 1978, four Belmont fields with a Triple Crown on the line also drew 11 horses - 1981, 1998, 2002 and 2012. The record is 13 horses in 1971, when Canonero II was fourth.
"There's a lot of fresh horses taking shots at me. He's going to have a target on his back," Sherman said. "It's going to be a jockey race. [Espinoza] will just have to maneuver him to the right spot and just sit there and not move too quick. It's a long race. He just needs to have a good trip; that's all I hope for."
Among the horses to have failed in their bid for the Triple Crown since 1978 are Hall of Famers Spectacular Bid (1979), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989) and Silver Charm (1997). The last horse to run for the Triple Crown was Big Brown, who was eased in 2008.
"You think about it, 36 years and nobody's won the Triple Crown. It'd be quite an honor," Sherman said. "If you would have said to me the first of the year that I would be on the Triple Crown trail, I would say, 'You're kidding me.' So here I am, hoping that we can get the final race. It would mean a lot to racing, I can tell you that. It's a great honor to win the Triple Crown. I would be very deeply happy if it happens."
California Chrome's challengers include two horses that have also competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Ride On Curlin and General a Rod. A son of 2007 Belmont runner-up and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, Ride On Curlin was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and second by 1 ½ lengths in the Preakness, the closest any horse has come to California Chrome during his streak.
"I knew he was a tough horse, but he runs hard and always comes out of his races and eats everything and he's real sound," said Billy Gowan, who trains Ride On Curlin for owner Daniel J. Dougherty. "He's come out of every race just super and wanting more, so we might as well give it to him."
Ride On Curlin has yet to win a stakes race, but along with the Preakness was second in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park last fall and has also placed in the Grade 2 Rebel and Grade 3 Southwest this year. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will ride for the first time from post five.
"Hopefully, another five-sixteenths of a mile and we'll be able to catch him as opposed to the Preakness, but that Chrome is going to be hard to catch," Gowan said. "He doesn't have a lot of quit in him. I'm just happy to be here. I'm a racing fan like everybody else. I've always wanted a Triple Crown, but hopefully not this year. If we can win it and he runs second, that'd be fine."
Based at Belmont with trainer Jimmy Jerkens, Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong skipped the Preakness after closing to be fourth in the Derby following a troubled trip. Winner of the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, the son of Hard Spun put in a bullet five-furlong work over the training track on Sunday.
"I'm pretty confident; as confident as I can be," Jerkens said. "I really like how he's doing. I think we're going into the race as good as we can hope. It's a big, prestigious race and people are going to take a shot, especially with the distance being a big question for everybody. People are more apt to take a shot here than anywhere."
A distant second choice in the program at 6-1, Wicked Strong and jockey Rajiv Maragh will break from post nine.
Tonalist, trained by Christophe Clement for Robert S. Evans, will be making just his fifth career start in the Belmont. Fourth in his unveiling last fall at Aqueduct, he won his 3-year-old debut on Jan. 18 and was second to Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Constitution on Feb. 22, both at Gulfstream Park. He was not seen again until winning the Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 10 by four lengths over Belmont Stakes contender Commissioner.
Jockey Joel Rosario, who rode Tonalist to victory in the Peter Pan, gets the return call from outside post 11 as the 8-1 third choice on the morning line.
"We missed a bit of time in Florida, but now he's doing well," Clement said. "He's training great and looks well. I'm very happy on my side. We'll just keep him sound for a few more days and go from there."
New York-bred Samraat opened his career with five straight wins including the Grade 3 Withers and Grade 3 Gotham over the winter at Aqueduct. Second behind Wicked Strong in the Wood Memorial, he prompted the early pace in the Kentucky Derby and wound up fifth, beaten 3 ¾ lengths, in his most recent start.
Regular rider Jose Ortiz and Samraat (20-1) will leave from post seven.
"He deceptively galloped out real good after the pressure was up in the Derby," said Rick Violette, who trains Samraat for Leonard Riggio's My Meadowview Stable. "I don't think we would change a day or a stride. Everything has been eerily spot on. His breeze the other day, he doesn't break stopwatches but it was a goosebump breeze, as easily as he accelerated and galloped out. I wouldn't change a thing."
Trainer Todd Pletcher captured the 2013 Belmont with Palace Malice and returns with both Commissioner and Matterhorn, who finished second and fourth, respectively, in the Peter Pan. Commissioner was also third in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby on March 23, while Matterhorn will be making only his second stakes start in the Belmont.
Commissioner (20-1) will be ridden by Javier Castellano from post eight, while Matterhorn (30-1) and jockey Joe Bravo will depart from post three.
"We're in the Belmont because we feel like they're horses that want to stay the distance. They both need to improve and they both need to run their best races to be a part of it," Pletcher said. "Commissioner, being a son of A.P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare, two winners of the Belmont, he's a horse we always felt would improve with a little bit of time and a little bit of distance. We felt the same way about Matterhorn. Both are coming out of the Peter Pan and ran respectable races on the sloppy track, and the Peter Pan has been a good prep for the Belmont over the years."
Commanding Curve has not raced since rallying from far back to finish second by 1 ¾ lengths in the Kentucky Derby. Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds and trained by Dallas Stewart, the Master Command colt is 0-for-3 in 2014 but also finished third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 29.
"Basically, you're just concentrating on your horse and trying to get that feeling that you can win. It's not like you're trying to upset something special," Stewart said. "I don't personally think like that. I just want to train my horse to win the race and let everything fall where it may. That's my job, and that's what I do. He beat us fair and square at a mile and a quarter. Hopefully, the extra quarter of a mile in this race will be what we need."
Commanding Curve will break from post four with jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.
Rounding out the Belmont Stakes field are Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes winner Medal Count (20-1), who finished second in the Grade 1 Blue Grass and eighth in the Derby for trainer Dale Romans; Gulfstream Park Derby winner and Grade 2 Fountain of Youth runner-up General a Rod (20-1), 11th in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness; and Matuszak (30-1), winless in seven starts since breaking his maiden last fall but whose Hall of Fame connections - trainer Bill Mott and jockey Mike Smith - upset the 2010 Belmont with Drosselmeyer.
The field for the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes: