Belmont Stakes Ambush Awaits Chrome: David Papadopoulos

Now it gets hard for our hero.

Now the pressure really starts to build. He blew them away in the Kentucky Derby and he trounced them in the Preakness Stakes, his rags-to-riches legend growing among his legion of fans with each conquest. But now California Chrome must summon the energy for one more big effort in the Test of Champions, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. It will be his third race in just five weeks -- each at a different distance, each at a different track.

And at Belmont, an ambush lies in wait.

For while Chrome was down in Baltimore blazing away to a 1 1/2-length victory in the Preakness, his closest rivals in the Derby were all back in their barns, licking their wounds, resting up and preparing for the Belmont Stakes. That group includes: Commanding Curve, second in the Derby, Danza, third, Wicked Strong, fourth, and Samraat, fifth.

The thinking from their trainers and owners goes roughly like this: The big horse from California is better than ours; he proved it in Louisville; we’d rather not face him again just two weeks later; so let him tire himself out in the Preakness and we’ll meet him at Belmont Park in early June.

It is a formula that has suddenly become the norm, the result of modern-day trainers’ emphasis on giving their charges more rest and recovery time between races.

Smarty Jones

And it has proven to be a successful one. No horse had ever taken the Derby-to-Belmont route to victory until Commendable did it in 2000, according to the Blood-Horse’s Steve Haskin, perhaps the foremost historian on the Sport of Kings. In the thirteen years since, six more have pulled it off.

Two of them foiled Triple Crown bids: Empire Maker blew by Funny Cide in the mud in 2003 and Birdstone caught Smarty Jones in the final strides before the finish line the following year.

I was there for both of those races.

The crowd’s anguish was palpable, especially when the undefeated Smarty Jones was toppled. He came into the Belmont off an 11 1/2-length romp in the Preakness, where he strolled to the finish line with his ears playfully pricked forward as if to say “I’m not even trying out here.” He was invincible. The Belmont was to simply be a coronation.

Sent off at odds of less than 2-5, he was the heaviest favorite since the great Spectacular Bid in 1979 (who was also upset, staggering home third in a loss that would mark the beginning of the Triple Crown drought).

I remember the crowd, which had been in a festive frenzy all day long, falling silent when Birdstone overtook Smarty Jones. I mean dead silent. Birdstone, a 36-1 longshot, was no match for Smarty Jones on raw ability. But he sure looked like the fresher horse at the end of the race that day.

So when Chrome spurts away from the field at the top of the stretch in the Belmont, just like he did in the Derby and in the Preakness, take a peek behind him, and hold your breath if you see a Birdstone-like spoiler emerging from the pack.

It’s those final 200 yards that can be the cruelest in the quest for the Triple Crown.

(David Papadopoulos, the deputy managing editor for emerging markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)

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