California Chrome might capture horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 36 years with one of the slowest winning times in Belmont Stakes history.
The past four Belmont winners finished in a time of two minutes, 30.4 seconds or slower. Before 2010, 36 of the previous 38 Belmont winners were clocked under 2:30. This year, oddsmakers have set the over/under betting line for the winner at exactly 2:30.
The June 7 Belmont Stakes is the longest of the three Triple Crown races at 1 1/2 miles, and winning times for the event in Elmont, New York, have crept upward in recent years as thoroughbred owners have put more focus on speed than stamina during breeding. It’s a distance the 3-year-old colts in the field have never run in a race and probably never will again.
“Even though the last few years have gone over this time, we felt after analyzing the potential field for the race that was a good starting point for us to offer,” said Kevin Bradley, manager of online sportsbook Bovada.lv. “Normally when we post a prop bet like this we’ll see how the money comes in and adjust, but it seems we have it spot on as money is coming in pretty evenly on both the over and the under.”
California Chrome won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes on May 17 in Pimlico, Maryland, with the third-fastest time in the past 16 years. That win came two weeks after the chestnut colt recorded the second-slowest winning time at the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby over the past decade, yet pulled away on the final turn and won by 1 3/4 lengths.
Since Seattle Slew and Affirmed won the most recent Triple Crowns back-to-back in 1977 and 1978, 12 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before their bid for a sweep came up short at the Belmont. The favorite has failed to win the Belmont 16 of the past 18 years.
A chief reason for the chaotic nature of the Belmont is the distance. At 1 1/2 miles (2.4 kilometers), it’s a quarter-mile farther than any race the participants have run before. Stamina-testing thoroughbred events have lost popularity since Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown in 1930 and then ran at least 1 1/2 miles in four of his next six races.
“Speed has become more prevalent in breeding for what the majority of the races are,” said bloodstock adviser Doug Cauthen, whose brother Steve was the jockey for Affirmed in the last Triple Crown. “So it does factor in producing somewhat slower times because none of them are really true stayers.”
Cauthen noted that most of today’s races range from six furlongs -- or 3/4 of a mile -- to 1 1/16 miles.
The Belmont has been run at 1 1/2 miles since 1926. The record time in the race is 2:24 for Secretariat’s 31-length victory in 1973. No other Belmont winner has been under 2:26. Gallant Fox’s winning time in the 1930 Belmont was the slowest for a Triple Crown winner at 2:31 3/5. The slowest winner was High Echelon in 1970, who finished in 2:34.
The condition of the track also factors in the winning time, with a muddy surface usually leading to a slightly slower pace. The six winners to finish the Belmont in under 2:27 all ran on tracks graded as “fast.” Approximately 25 percent of the previous 145 Belmont Stakes have been run on a wet, or off track, most recently in 2011, when Ruler on Ice won in “sloppy” conditions. Three of the past four years, the Belmont has been run in fast conditions. Saturday’s forecast is for clear skies.
“A mile and a half, it’s quite a challenge,” Art Sherman, California Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer, said after his horse’s 1 1/2-length win at the Preakness Stakes. “You have to have a very good horse to win these three races and I’m hoping I’ve got one right now.”
Cauthen, who runs Cauthen Thoroughbred Management LLC in Lexington, Kentucky, said the winning time in the Belmont can be difficult to handicap because much of the race is tactical. Horses often run slower early to save energy for the end of the race, he said, rather than an extended steady run.
Cauthen added that California Chrome reminds him in many ways of Affirmed, pointing out the colt’s tactical style, toughness and experience, and predicts a winning time of under 2:30.
“California Chrome could come in with a pretty legitimate time because he’s one of those freaks who has an amazing air system, cardio system and he doesn’t seem to be very taxed after these races,” Cauthen said. “I honestly think if he wants to, he’s going to throw a pretty good time up. Not a Secretariat time, but a pretty good time.”