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With California Chrome, jockey Victor Espinoza, trainer Art Sherman and owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin attempting to become the 12th group in history to win American Thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown, there is going to be a lot of attention paid to the game this weekend.
Some of it will the kind horse racing does not want, but the kind it most certainly needs and deserves as the result of its behavior.
This Belmont weekend could very well be a monumental crossroads for the very future of racing in America - a California Chrome win or not.
You'll hear poetic wax on 'Chrome being "America's horse," and learn about the cute endorsements/exploitations with the horse's "shoe deal" or the breathing strip giveaway. And the rags-to-riches story of how the California cowboys have only about $12,000 into a horse that has earned them more than $3.45 million will be on a veritable loop in NBC's television coverage.
But at the same time, the Belmont Stakes will run on the heels of yet another report, this one by HBO's Real Sports, about the widespread use of drugs in horse racing. That is, legal drugs that are regulated in however many ways in however many states that sanction horse racing.
A big one is Lasix, a diuretic that horsemen say prevents the horse from bleeding in the lungs in a race when, more probably, it purges fluid - weight - from a horse to make it lighter. Disgraced trainer Scott Blasi, top assistant to one of the most winning trainers of all time, Steve Asmussen, said as much in a controversial video released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
If the video showed nothing else, and even if you decry PETA's methods, it does show that these trainers know Lasix, which is used nearly universally on race day in America, to be a performance enhancing substance.
That's just one of the many medications horses are subjected to in their racing careers.
How do we personally process all of this?
It can be called a rationalization or, perhaps, hypocrisy. These things have been going on forever, we say. Hell, they only fairly recently banned milkshakes, a bicarbonate of soda cocktail given to horses to improve their oxygen processing. And steroids are now banned.
Optimistically, Jerry Bossert of the New York Daily News reports that again this year, horses will be closely monitored in the days leading to the race: "[A]ll horses participating in the Belmont Stakes must be on the grounds by noon on June 4 and will be subject to out-of-competition drug testing."
Trainers will be required to provide complete veterinarian records for the three days before the race and horses will be watched constantly in those days. Blood samples will also be taken for testing. Notice the limitation to "horses participating in the Belmont Stakes."
These measures were enacted only in 2012 when trainer Doug O'Neill, with pending drug suspensions already hanging over his head, brought in I'll Have Another for his shot at the Triple Crown. The New York Racing Association cracked its whip, seeking to demonstrate it's toughness with O'Neil and all the others.
And it looked like the system worked. The vet records showed an intense regimen of treatment for an assortment of ailment(s). Maladies O'Neill said he didn't even know about! We'll never know, but we can hope that O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam were "persuaded" to scratch the horse, which they did the day before the race.
The dirt on racing has been dished and it's as serious as a two-dollar bet. This is a golden opportunity for racing to admit it has a problem and to seek help. If the states won't get together on standard regulations for the sport, getting just a couple of the bigger states to begin truly banning these drugs will force others to do so. Can't run in New York AND Maryland AND Kentucky because of drug bans? The horsemen will scream for standardization.
Racing is not an "it," and that is the problem. It is an amorphous jumble of tracks and corporations and state regulatory bodies. If any one of the giants among these takes a strong stance - takes up a crusade - that business as usual is over, such as with drugs, inconsistent regulations, inconsistent wagering and customer service, change might truly be possible.
If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, so much the better. But don't just call it a nice, positive story that the game needed and move on. Use it as an opportunity, under the full scrutiny of those who might turn into fans and those who despise the game, to show that racing seeks to heal itself. And then follow through!
The traditional racing trade press won't do it. So, Tom Hammond and Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss and Bobby Costas, I dare any one of you to talk about it Saturday.
This is the 13th time since Affirmed's Crown in 1978 that a horse has come into the Belmont Stakes with a chance for racing's ultimate trifecta. Some of the highlights:
* 1979: The best of this group, Spectacular Bid finished third behind Coastal in the Belmont. What was it? The safety pin they found in his foot the morning of the race or the theory that 19-year-old jockey Ronnie Franklin sent him too early on the backstretch and burned him out? With a lifetime record of 30-26-2-1, some say the 'Bid was one of the best horses ever, let alone to not win the Triple Crown.
* 1989: After interrupted training between the races and kicking his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, in the head days before the Belmont, Sunday Silence was easily beaten by Easy Goer, who recorded the second fastest Belmont ever behind, of course, Secretariat.
* 1997: Silver Charm, beginning the first of three straight years of 'Crown hopefuls, suffered a tough-beat Belmont to Touch Gold, who had stumbled in the Preakness.
* 1998: In one of the closest Belmonts in history, Real Quiet was beaten a large nostril by Victory Gallop, ridden by Gary Stevens, who had been aboard Silver Charm the year before. Stevens will be on the sidelines this year.
* 2002: Kicking off another three-year string of 'Crown attempts, War Emblem, winner of the Illinois Derby in the last hurrah for Cicero's old Sportsman's Park, (with 'Chrome's rider Victor Espinoza aboard) stumbled at the start, gained the lead at the head of the stretch, then faded to eighth as 70-1 Sarava shocked. 'Emblem, who had just come under the tutelage, and ownership, of Bob Baffert, was a speed merchant who never figured to get the 12 furlongs.
* 2003: This was a fun year. New York-bred gelding Funny Cide romped by almost 10 lengths in the Preakness. His downfall in the Belmont figured to be a lights out gallop in the week before the race and an inability to relax in the mud at Belmont. He finished third behind Empire Maker. The bevy of owners in his syndicate would ride to the races in a charter, of course: a yellow school bus.
* 2004: My most disappointing Triple Crown, Smarty Jones ran a tremendous race - if it had been at 11 furlongs and change. After suffering a severe head injury in a starting gate training accident in July of his two-year-old year, Smarty rebounded to win Aqueduct's Count Fleet in early 2004. Trainer John Servis took the Razorback route as Smarty parlayed the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park to head into the Kentucky Derby the first to be undefeated since 1977's Crown king Seattle Slew. After a record 12-length win in the Preakness, Smarty entered the Belmont still perfect. You can believe either that Smarty was bullheaded or rank, or you can believe that third-tier jockey Stewart Elliot sent him way too early on the backstretch, but he ran each of the first three quarters faster than the last. His middle half-mile was faster than Secretariat's (he has Secretariat in his blood lines)! But what a gutty performance. It took Nick Zito's little Birdstone about every Belmont inch to run down Smarty, but he did, and paid $74 to win. The Belmont crowd fell silent and the disappointment was so palpable, racing scion Marylou Whitney needlessly, but sincerely, apologized to the crowd and the world for denying the Triple Crown. Disappointingly again, Smarty Jones was retired after the Belmont, severe ankle bruising being cited. I'm still reeling over that too.
Attention! Have your pencils and scorecards ready:
1. Medal Count: He pretty much bopped around the Triple Crown trail before settling at Keeneland, with an off-the-turf win in the Transylvanian and a hanging second in the Blue Grass Stakes, both on the synthetic. He had a lot of early Derby buzz but bombed in the Fountain of Youth and had to stop short in heavy traffic in the Kentucky Derby stretch. He'll have to take a big step up overall and huge step up on dirt on a course he's never seen. His sire being Dynaformer is his only asset.
2. California Chrome: A first-time/long-timer on a Manhattan radio show wondered: "If he wins the Triple Crown, might we say he's the best horse ever?" Um, no.
The pros are that he has proven that he is the best three-year-old male right now, he has won on dirt and synthetic on five different tracks, he seems able to dictate his own trips, he is reportedly in good condition and sticking to his normal routine, and he should have great foundation after six races this year and 12 lifetime. The cons are that his Kentucky Derby win was the slowest in 40 years, the Preakness win was a diminishing length-and-a-half, he's probably just the best of a bad bunch, he had dream trips in the Derby and Preakness, he is the son of Lucky Pulpit who didn't win much and never won past 5.5 furlongs (!), and he could be tired after six races this year and 12 lifetime. Derby and Preakness runnersup Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin, respectively, are no great shakes when measured by stakes wins.
Don't ask if he'll win the Triple Crown, first ask if he'll win the Belmont. Odds are, no. The sharps are predicting that the fractions will be moderate, with Samraat and Tonalist attempting to set the pace, that there will be no suicidal pace to fall apart and run into. DUH, never happens in the Belmont anyway. Post position is not too much of a factor because the race is so long.
I say the two-hole does not favor 'Chrome. What is he going to do? His best move, with luck, will be to bide time next to Medal Count among the leaders, concede the lead to a couple of pacesetters, get into third or fourth position, and calmly make his way around the track. Save ground on the rail? Move out two lanes? Depends on traffic and how the track is playing.
What if the inexperienced Matterhorn on his outside and/or Commanding Curve, who wants to win, jump up and suddenly 'Chrome finds himself behind and boxed by three or five horses or worse? Which is not his M.O. The race could and maybe should set up for him, but he'll have to work to make that so.
I figure he'll need at least a couple dipsy doodles in the long race and with a full mile-and-a-half to run, will that burn up too much of the famous knockout punch he'll need down the long Belmont stretch? What about Victor Espinoza, whose experience, including two previous Belmonts, is very limited at Big Sandy? Will he panic up into the first turn or backstretch to keep 'Chrome in sight of the leaders? Or will he have so much patience that he ends up in the last car of the train? It's a long race; a lot will happen. And don't bet on him (at a low price) because you want him to win or, worse, you want a Triple Crown.
Don't laugh, Captain Obvious, but California Chrome will have a lot of work to do and if he can do that, maintain over the longest of distances and fend off inevitable tough challenges from others, he will be a deserving winner. A Triple Crown horse who was not bred to do it!
It's a conundrum. I don't think he can be considered among the pantheon of great horses or even great Triple Crown winners. But if he wins Belmont on Saturday, they'll never be able to take away from him an immortality that better horses have been unable to achieve since Affirmed.
3. Matterhorn: An epic mountain to climb and not a sherpa in sight. Lay down a couple Washingtons and then say "yodel le he hoo!" to them. I hope he doesn't mess up the 2 horse.
4. Commanding Curve: He could be the second favorite, based on his recovery from a troubled trip in the Derby to get up for second and paying $31.80. He's working well but he'll need to improve significantly from the Derby. He has shown closing ability, which could prove handy in a moderate pace where the glory seekers up front just might be tiring. At 15-1 on the morning line, if he stays there, it's a good price for a horse capable of winning and worth inclusion. Beware of the talking-head NBC wiseguys. They may drive down his price.
5. Ride On Curlin: Son of the fantastic Curlin (sire of last year's Belmont winner Palace Malice) out of a Storm Cat mare, Ride On Curlin is like the best man who organizes the bachelor party but has to be the designated driver, in the Derby. Then gives a truly moving and poignant toast at the Preakness reception but calls the bride Stacy instead of Tracy.
He hasn't won since just after college bowl season. Calvin Borel made his Derby about himself by falling back and taking him to the rail and then had to go back outside, finishing seventh. Joel Rosario had to be careful on Pimlico's tight turns but got him chugging just a little too late to catch 'Chrome. I think he benefits in this race by having some of the better three-year-olds elsewhere for various reasons. He has a six-race foundation in 2014, just like CC, and Belmont veteran, the premier John Velazquez aboard. The wedding festivities are over, but now he has to go back to work on Monday morning. He'll be getting married himself someday and the boys will high-five him all over the place. Just not this weekend. See how he looks in the post parade and if he stays at the 12-1 morning line or better, go for it.
6. Matuszak: Tooz? Whaddya doin' heah?! At 50-1 or better, trainer Bill Mott is thrilled with his progress and Mike Smith rides. Hey, go ahead. But be ready to give a toodle loo to a couple more Washingtons.
7. Samraat: Good news and bad news. Sired by Noble Causeway (Giant's Causeway). Dam sire is Indian Charlie, whose distance pedigree is famous for its nonexistence. But Samraat is a tryer whose wins in his first five races - none more than 8.5 furlongs - caught a lot of buzz. He was beaten 3.5 in the Wood Memorial to Wicked Strong, who will be tough here. With an aggravating trip in the Derby, he finished fifth by nearly six lengths; toss it and he's where you want him to be after skipping the Preakness, IF he can possibly go 12 furlongs. He'll want to be a part of the early festivities on the lead, but to win, he'll have to absolutely steal it while somebody else sets up a major diversion.
8. Commissioner: Son of A.P. Indy (Seattle Slew) out of a (Belmont-winner) Touch Gold mare, his angle is pedigree. Coming out of a Fountain of Youth clunker, wouldn't you have liked to at least see him beat the distance-challenged Midnight Hawk in the Sunland Derby? Did he simply hate the Oaklawn going in the Arkansas Derby? Is his second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan, still four lengths back, possible only because of a sealed (very wet) track? How many excuses does this guy get? He's only got one speed, so his only chance is to get close up, stay clear, and let the 12 furlongs do it for him. But he should be good value.
9. Wicked Strong: Or he might be the second favorite. Trainer Jim Jerkens has got to have high hopes in this race for the son of Hard Spun (Danzig) out of a Charismatic mare. Wicked is 1-for-2 at Belmont and seems like a New York kind of guy. Having to go where it's warm, he bombed at Gulfstream early in the year, returned to The Apple and won the Wood Memorial by nearly four over Samraat and Social Inclusion, who wisely ducked out of this race and landed in the 7-furlong Woody Stephens earlier in the day. He ran well in the Derby, finishing fourth by nearly five after encountering the standard Derby traffic. His impressive style in the Wood was very reminiscent of 'Chrome's. Rajiv Maragh needs to realize that. Why not dance with the star and tango around the track right with him? And Wicked' took the Preakness off! Just pray his odds stay at or above the ML 6-1. Include.
10. General a Rod: This is the kind of horse that if I toss him, I'll get ashed like a Kingsford briquette. His second in the Fountain of Youth was nice enough. There was a lot to like with his two-length third in the Florida Derby in a race he probably needed. Then he gets caught in the silly traffic of the Derby and gets cut off by the ridiculous run to the front by Ria Antonia in the Preakness. He's either demoralized, or he's learning. I'll take the latter at a big price, and Rosie Napravnik up. I just hope he isn't tired. I should have seen Birdstone, but I won't take my eyes off of this one. I just feel like I want to trust him one more time.
11. Tonalist: Or THIS one might be the second favorite. In a race this long, I don't see a problem with the outside post. But I do see a problem with this Tapit colt in only his fifth race and his second off a 10-week layoff. Sure, he won the Wood Memorial by four. But the track was sealed and that 103 Beyer Speed Figure might be a questionable result. And it might be a giraffe Beyer, high but a one time thing that screams bounce. We don't know. His works at Belmont are so-so. Tapit for distance pedigree is a negatory. His price may be way too low. But what if he's just some precocious upstart who simply doesn't obey his elders? Maybe a couple of Washingtons to cover, but I'm leaning more with "Beat it kid, you bother me."
I'm going to have two dollars on everybody. And a lots/with/lots exacta. Watch the odds and see how many bet on California Chrome and how odds on the others (should) hold up. Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong are real contenders, along with Ride On Curlin. I will play a few exacta boxes with and without California Chrome. The mile-and-a-half is the great equalizer. Obviously a grinding race. Medal Count might contend, with hope on a General a Rod price. Wager-wise, a win by California Chrome is a mundane event, but a loss should pay.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.