“Since Affirmed in 1978” — it has to be the most overused phrase in Thoroughbred racing.
And yet it is inevitable every spring, when a new crop of 3-year-olds takes a shot at the sport’s most cherished prize, the Triple Crown.
Affirmed was the last to do it, 36 years ago, and the ensuing drought has coincided with a long downturn in popularity for racing. The sport’s stakeholders have hungered for a new superstar, and a Triple Crown seems the surest way to make one.
Which is where California Chrome enters the picture.
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Five times he has entered the starting gate as a 3-year-old and five times he has defeated the competition, the last two in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
California Chrome will enter the Belmont Stakes on Saturday as a commanding favorite, having already beaten the best challengers in the field.
But the sport’s recent past is littered with 3-year-olds who looked like the next superhorse, only to falter on the 1½ -mile track at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
Eleven horses since 1978 have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, then lost in New York. A few — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones — came agonizingly close. Others, such as Big Brown and War Emblem, seemed done shortly after leaving the starting gate.
The Triple Crown is a rigged game, one in which the aspirant is asked to find new limits of endurance while facing wave after wave of fresher horses. Some horsemen say it has become unfair. Others argue it is supposed to be this hard.
As California Chrome prepares to defy recent history, the five greatest obstacles he will face are: a fresh field; the fatigue factor; the distance; race tactics and the threat of bad luck.
Few analysts question California Chrome is the best 3-year-old in America. But the road ahead is far steeper as he prepares to run for the third time in five weeks against horses who haven’t worked nearly as hard lately.
His top rivals from Kentucky — Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong — are expected to run in the Belmont on five weeks’ rest. A new challenger, Tonalist, will run on four weeks’ rest after winning the Peter Pan Stakes on May 10 at Belmont.
So even if California Chrome is the best horse, he’ll start at a significant disadvantage. Imagine the Miami Heat needing to win an extra round of playoffs before playing in the NBA Finals. That’s close to the situation here, and recent history says it makes a difference.
Since 1978, of the 11 near-misses who made it to the starting gate for the Belmont (I’ll Have Another scratched in 2012), seven lost to challengers who had not run in the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore. The last five horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown lost the Belmont to horses who hadn’t run in Baltimore.
California Chrome has never run three times in five weeks. It’s a work rate unfamiliar to most modern Thoroughbreds. Trainer Art Sherman will tell you he prefers to rest his horses six or seven weeks between starts.
“I think horses years ago were tougher, and they campaigned harder,” said Affirmed co-owner Patrice Wolfson. “They usually relished racing.”
If the Kentucky Derby is marked by packed fields and the Preakness by early speed, the Belmont is the marathon of the Triple Crown slate.
Like most of his peers, California Chrome has never run farther than the 1¼ miles at Churchill Downs. The 1½-mile Belmont represents an unexplored frontier.
Sherman has been bullish about his colt’s ability to handle the distance. But there are strong closers, such as Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong, in the projected field. The closest near-misses since 1978 — Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones — all led in the Belmont and lost to late charges.
Jockey Victor Espinoza feels an unusual affinity for California Chrome, who has responded to his calls for speed at various points in big races. This versatility might be the colt’s greatest strength.
But Espinoza acknowledged the Preakness presented a difficult tactical challenge, with speedy horses attacking California Chrome in the first half of the race. He asked for California Chrome’s big move with more than a half-mile to go, and the colt had enough endurance to pull it off.
But what if the same thing happens in the Belmont and California Chrome is asked to accelerate early, only to face a much longer stretch run?
Many felt jockey Stewart Elliott fell into that trap aboard Smarty Jones in 2004 and thus lost his lead to 36-1 shot Birdstone.
As for luck, California Chrome could find himself trapped against the rail with other horses kicking dirt in his face.
That is a scenario he has not yet confronted, and if we’ve learned anything about recent attempts to win the Triple Crown, it is that the problems keep coming.