Commentary

Playing favorites in the Belmont

California Chrome and his jockey Victor Espinoza don't need a perfect trip to win

Updated: June 4, 2014, 1:21 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

There are a lot of reasons California Chrome could lose the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, not the least of which is history. However, there is one extremely compelling reason he very well could make some history of his own: he is the best horse in the field.

Going into the Kentucky Derby most people figured he was the best horse on paper, but we all know paper can lie. After his victory in the Preakness Stakes, though, it was pretty clear he is the best horse of his crop. As such, a misstep on his part is the most likely way one of his counterparts can beat him.

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"It'll take a combination of things to beat him, that's for sure. One of our horses will have to run the race of their life, and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker.

" -- Jimmy Jerkens, trainer Wicked Strong
"Obviously, California Chrome is going to need to have a bad day," said trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who conditions Wicked Strong. "It'll take a combination of things to beat him, that's for sure. One of our horses will have to run the race of their life, and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker."

California Chrome deserves to win on Saturday. Not because the sport needs him or wants him to, but simply because he deserves it. This isn't a horse that happened to freak on the first Saturday in May and managed to carry his form for two weeks and roll it into victory at the Preakness.

His statistics speak for themselves, as the flashy chestnut runner hasn't lost this year. California Chrome has run and won five times in 2014, and comes into the Belmont riding a six-race winning streak. Of those six victories, three have come in Grade 1 races, and he clearly doesn't need a specific track or distance to win. He is just stone-cold talented.

For comparison, Tonalist, who many feel will be his main competition, has run four times in his life. In his only attempt at stakes company, Tonalist took the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont in May. It was a good race, but he is the new kid on the block, whereas California Chrome is the proven commodity. Hype is part of any sport, but it is also important to respect actual effort.

In an era of the sport when four races can equal an entire season, I would love nothing more than for a "throwback type" to take it all.

One of the biggest knocks against California Chrome going into the Belmont is that he has had perfect trips in the other races, while his competition has not. That is selling both the horse and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, a little bit short.

Yes, there is a certain amount of luck that goes into trips. Post positions, competition and how the track is playing that day all play a part. But if a horse seemingly always has a great trip, that seems less like luck and more like talent.

Belmont contender Ride On Curlin works at Belmont Stakes.
Al Bello/Getty ImagesRide On Curlin has posted some strong works at Belmont Park in recent days.
California Chrome hasn't lost since being partnered with Espinoza. That isn't a coincidence. The two clearly understand each other, which means Espinoza can place California Chrome where he needs him at any given time. That kind of harmony is lucky, but it isn't just luck. It is also skill and respect.

After the Preakness, Espinoza was asked what the No. 1 ingredient for the horse's winning streak was. The jockey instantly replied, "I think the way I ride him." Trainer Art Sherman then immediately quipped, "I will drink to that."

Horses are not machines. The rapport between a rider and his horse can mean the difference between winning and losing. Anyone who has ridden before knows that a horse will try harder for the person on his back if he respects that person. There is not a doubt in my mind that if it comes down to a stride-for-stride, eyeball-to-eyeball finish, California Chrome will give everything he has simply because Espinoza will ask him to. That willingness is not a guarantee with every single horse and rider, nor is it a guarantee California Chrome would win the battle. But, man, it makes him likable.

For all that, there are millions of ways to lose a race and only one way to win one. There is certainly validity to the thought process of having a fresh horse going into the Belmont, which is why Tonalist is so popular. It is a long, tiring race, and horses are not trained anymore to run as often as they are asked to during the Triple Crown.

Except, that isn't exactly true. A more accurate statement would be to say well-pedigreed, intact male horses are no longer asked to run as often as they used to. Somehow, fillies, mares, geldings and less talented claimers all typically manage to run more often than the headline colts.

The mind boggles over the amount of money made off of stud deals. It is easier to turn a profit if you have a flashy runner with a pretty pedigree who runs one or two races of note and retires. The more often they run, the more often they can lose. Sportsmanship is often lost in the shuffle when millions of dollars are on the table.

Ironically, although California Chrome's humble pedigree is often held up as a reason he shouldn't succeed, it might be because of that pedigree he succeeds where others have failed. He is a homebred, meaning he wasn't treated like a hothouse flower growing up. Sales horses often are. His pedigree didn't equate to millions at birth, which means he was treated like a horse, not a winning lottery ticket.

The horse is in capable hands and has an actual foundation under him. No one knows if he can go 1 ½ miles, but that is true for every other horse who is lining up against him, as well. The numbers will tell you he shouldn't have been able to win at a 1 ¼ miles, but he did in the Kentucky Derby, so who am I to say he can't go an extra quarter-mile?

"All these horses are untested at that distance so it's going to be interesting to see how it sorts itself out," said trainer Dallas Stewart. "It's going to be a great race. You can't take anything away from California Chrome. He does nothing but win, so he'll probably be pretty tough to beat."

Stewart will do his best to do just that, though, with Commanding Curve. The colt ran a fantastic race to grab second in the Kentucky Derby before sitting out the Preakness and is a real threat going into the Belmont.

My respect for dancing every dance means that I have to cheer for Ride On Curlin to do well, though. He comes into the Belmont off a solid second-place effort in the Preakness after finishing a troubled seventh in the Derby. He comes running late, but always seems to find trouble as a result. It will be interesting to see what happens on Saturday, but if California Chrome can't win, I hope Ride On Curlin can.

"I definitely think the horse is ready," said trainer Billy Gowan. "I wouldn't be running just to say I ran in the Belmont. I think I've got a legitimate chance of winning it, or I wouldn't be here. You know, I've gotten closer to California Chrome than anybody else has this year, so hopefully with a little added distance we can maybe take him. But he's a tough horse. I've got all the respect in the world for him."

That is what it comes down to. Respect. I know the reasons California Chrome could lose. That said, I have thought he was the best horse in the first two legs, and I am not going to abandon him now. He has given me no reason to, and he doesn't know statistically speaking he should lose. After all, he can't read the history books. But let's hope he is about to rewrite them.

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