California Chrome hopes to rewrite Belmont Stakes history

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ELMONT, N.Y. -- In 1978, Americans paid 63 cents for a gallon of gas, an average of $260 a month in rent and 98 cents for a pound of ground beef, but Triple Crown winners, having happened in back-to-back racing seasons, seemed as if they might become a dime a dozen.

When Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1979 to set up a potential third consecutive Triple Crown, Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Billy Reed, an Eclipse award winner no less, wondered in print whether the feat had become too easy.

History has answered that question. Nobody has won it since.

Things change. In 1978, the hot thing in video games was Space Invaders, and, if you wanted to be cutting edge with home video, you bought yourself a LaserDisc player.

But, if you want to watch Affirmed win the 1978 Belmont Stakes, good luck finding it on LaserDisc. Horse racing, too, has changed. Affirmed faced only four rivals in winning the final leg of his Triple Crown, so few that there was no show betting. Same for Secretariat. Seattle Slew faced only seven Belmont competitors.

In general, in years where there's a dominant horse, the Belmont field shrinks. But in recent years, with a Triple Crown on the line, spoilers start lining up.

So it is that California Chrome will face 10 rivals Saturday in the Belmont Stakes. No Triple Crown winner has faced more than an 8-horse field in the Belmont.

Moreover, no horse has won the Triple Crown without first having run a race at Belmont Park. After Sir Barton, who was later awarded Triple Crown status for winning the three races in 1919 (before the notion of a Triple Crown existed), every horse to pull off the achievement has run multiple races over the track before the Belmont Stakes.

Number of races California Chrome has run at Belmont: Zero. He also is seeking to become the first California-bred horse to win the race since 1903 -- and the first Kentucky Derby winner to win the Belmont since 1995.

As much as the horse will be chasing history Saturday, he also will be battling it along with the "new shooters" hoping to knock him off.

Four of the past seven Belmont winners did not run in the Derby or Preakness. Tonalist, trained by Cristophe Clement, fits that profile. A late developing colt, he has the best speed figure in the race, and his previous race was a four-length victory in the Peter Pan Stakes over a sloppy, sealed track at Belmont.

Derby starters who skipped the Preakness also have had recent success in the Belmont. Among horses who fit that profile: Medal Count, Wicked Strong, Samraat and Commanding Curve.

Commanding Curve was second in the Derby and appears ideally suited for the added distance of the Belmont. Wicked Strong was hampered in the Derby by traffic issues but also appears to have the breeding for the distance.

Rick Violet, trainer of Samraat, has a colt who is comfortable at Belmont Park and who has good cruising speed. He thinks his colt will be ready when the horses turn for home.

"He's a bit of a grinder and he keeps on going at a metronome pace, and that can be a hallmark of a horse that wants to run a mile and a half," Violet said. "It's a horse race.

"It's a very important horse race. Our owner, Leonard Riggio, said a great thing. They asked him how he would feel if his horse stopped the Triple Crown bid, and he said, 'I won't mind being called a winner.' People can call it what it is, but being called the winner would be pretty sweet. He's a great horse [California Chrome], it's a great story, that's going to get him to the gate. But if we take the wind out of his sails coming to the wire, I'm not going to lose any sleep."

Besides California Chrome, two others will try all three Triple Crown races. Ride On Curlin was second in the Preakness, seventh in the Derby. General a Rod was fourth at Pimlico, 11th in the Derby.

The only trainer alive to have saddled a Triple Crown winner, Billy Turner, said managing Belmont's sweeping turns and massive 11/2-mile layout may be the biggest challenge for California Chrome. Turner trained Seattle Slew in 1977, and will be in the stands to watch California Chrome Saturday. Turner isn't necessarily expecting a California Chrome win, but he is hoping for it.

"California Chrome is the outstanding horse of the crop," Turner said. "The only question you have is, will he get the mile and a half? . . . A mile and a half can be a little bit strange, and we have a few horses in there who will get the mile and a half. Tonalist was very impressive in the Peter Pan. and Wicked Strong has been training like a monster of a horse, and he is bred to run that far. I think it's going to be a great race, I really do."

Looking ahead

■ What: 146th Belmont Stakes.

■ When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday.

■ Where: Elmont, N.Y.

■ TV: Pre-race coverage on WPXI begins at 4:30 p.m.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. Eric Crawford writes for WDRB.

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