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Head over heart in the Belmont

Trust me, I want California Chrome to win the Belmont Stakes. I really do. I like the horse, the trainer, the jockey, the owners. I like his name. I like his humble beginnings. I like the fact he trains at a quarter horse track. I like everything about him. How could you not?

It's been 36 years since the last Triple Crown winner, and that's way too long. But there's a reason 12 straight Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners have not gone on to win the Triple Crown. The achievement has simply become too hard. And on Saturday, California Chrome figures to become the latest on a long list of Triple Crown disappointments.

Every one of the 11 horses that made it to the Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line (I'll Have Another was scratched before the race) was the favorite. Most were overwhelming favorites. Three or four of them losing in a row? That would be a coincidence. Six or seven of them losing? That might be a fluke. But 11? If you flip a coin 11 straight times and it comes up tails every single time, you would no longer look at it as a coincidence or a tremendous run of bad luck. You would be certain there was something wrong with the coin.

To properly examine what has gone wrong with all these horses in the Belmont, you need to start not with Spectacular Bid in 1979 but with Alysheba in 1987. Racing changed in the eight-year span between the two, and Alysheba was among the first prominent horses to race with legal medication. Lasix now seems like pretty tame stuff, but in 1987 the use of it was a huge story, primarily because Alysheba was not allowed to use it the Belmont, as New York was one of the last states to hold out on allowing the drug.

Whether the lack of Lasix cost Alysheba the Triple Crown is anyone's guess, but he was the first of the Triple Crown losers who relied on medication. Over time, Lasix and dozens of other "therapeutic" medications have become a larger and larger part of racing, to the point that virtually every horse runs on Lasix and receives a host of other legal drugs between races. Trainers have figured out how to use the drugs to get the very best out of a horse on race day, but the consequence is that the horses need several weeks between races to recover and get back to their best.

When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, no one raced on Lasix; most trainers relied on little more than hay, oats and water. The Belmont was Affirmed's 16th career start and his seventh as a 3-year-old. He raced nine times as a 2-year-old. Given that sort of campaign and seasoning leading into the Belmont, the three-races-in-five-weeks situation was a piece of cake.


California Chrome is a veritable iron horse by modern standards, with 12 career starts, but the type of campaign Affirmed ran is unimaginable these days. Horses are not trained to run three times in five weeks, and they're unable to withstand the punishment. By the time they get to the Belmont, the Triple Crown hopefuls are not the same horse.

Can California Chrome be the one to break through and prove strong enough to handle this monumental task? It would be foolish to say he has no chance. But the odds are against him.

My pick is Commanding Curve, the long shot who finished second in the Kentucky Derby. I didn't give him any chance coming in but gained new respect for him after he put in an outstanding performance in Louisville.

The pace in the Derby was far slower than most expected, and when the frontrunners hit the half in a moderate time of 47 U, California Chrome was in the perfect spot -- third and chasing a pair of long shots. Meanwhile, Commanding Curve was next to last and 12 lengths behind. He looked to be in an unwinnable situation, but he still came close. After losing considerable ground on the far turn when going eight wide, he closed to lose by just 1 lengths.

My biggest worry about Curve is that there's a lack of early speed in the Belmont, and closers traditionally don't do well in this race. If jockey Shaun Bridgmohan is not careful, Commanding Curve could get the kind of trip that will make it impossible for him to win.

So the pick is not California Chrome but Commanding Curve. But I hope I'm wrong.