The past 11 horses that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown were named the season's champion 3-year-old, and two of them, Point Given and Charismatic, were honored as the Horse of the Year.
In other words, already, with his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, California Chrome probably has won an Eclipse Award. The championship race is virtually over, even as the season approaches the half-mile pole. In fact, California Chrome has accomplished more already than Horse of the Year Wise Dan all of last season.
So, California Chrome has arrived at a place few ever reach: He has won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, virtually secured an Eclipse Award in May and assumed the pole position in the race for Horse of the Year. But of most importance, with another victory, in the Belmont Stakes on June 7, he'll have climbed one of the most revered summits in all of sport.
And so of course he tops the final ESPN.com Power Rankings poll. But anybody who has followed the sport closely or who has delved into its recent history deeply will find it difficult, if not impossible, to be confident, even two-thirds of the way home, about a Triple Crown sweep. Certitude is the hallmark of an idiot. If Alysheba could finish 14 lengths back and Sunday Silence eight, if Big Brown could be pulled up before even finishing and War Emblem stumble at the start, if Spectacular Bid could step on a pin the morning of the race and both Smarty Jones and Real Quiet get run down in the final yards, if circumstances or misadventure could befall them all, then you'd probably be foolish not to concede that the Belmont Stakes can be a playground for chance and fortune. The best horse generally wins the Preakness, but he frequently falters in New York.
Being best, as California Chrome has proven he is, doesn't always suffice in the Belmont Stakes. But California Chrome also has this going for him in New York: His victories in Kentucky and Maryland were relatively easy. By mid-stretch, he had won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, so that from there he could cruise home.
Nor did he have to expend energy stalking a hot pace. Bayern got wiped out at the break and so didn't contribute to the early fractions, nor did Social Inclusion. And so the Preakness pace was reasonable, but hardly taxing for a horse of California Chrome's quality -- 46.85 seconds for the opening half-mile on a day when the surface encouraged fast times. He stalked easily and comfortably, moved to the lead in the second turn and then spurted clear for an advantage of three lengths in mid-stretch. Once again, in what might have been his best performance yet, he made it look easy. Ride On Curlin rallied with good energy, but never threatened, finishing 1 ½ lengths back, and it was another 6 ½ lengths back to Social Inclusion in third.
Tractable and versatile and naturally fast, California Chrome will be hard to beat, of course, in New York, where he'll probably be able to control the pace. But this is the Belmont Stakes, and its 1 ½ miles a playground for chance and fortune.
Who, if anybody, can beat him? Who can force the famed crown, so polished and so ready for a coronation, back into the sport's reliquary?
From here, Wicked Strong appears to be the strongest threat. Like most horses in the Derby, he had a rough trip at Churchill Downs, stumbling at the start, racing five-wide and having to alter course in traffic. He finished fourth. A large, powerful colt that does his best running on the straight, he was born to race at Belmont Park.
Commanding Curve, the Kentucky Derby runner-up, skipped the Preakness to prepare for the Belmont, as did Intense Holiday, and Ride On Curlin will take his reliability to New York. But Joel Rosario, who rode him in Baltimore, will instead ride Tonalist, the Peter Pan winner, in the Belmont.
Coastal, Danzig Connection and the great A.P. Indy all prepared for a Belmont Stakes victory by winning the Peter Pan. And Tonalist could indeed be a threat. After a troubled start, he rushed up to assume control, and when challenged he drew clear to win his stakes debut by four lengths.
Commissioner, the Peter Pan runner-up, is also aimed at the Belmont; Social Inclusion, Samraat and Kid Cruz remain possible for the race, too. Add the demanding distance, the disorienting expanse of the oval, the stressful grind of the series and the history of the Belmont as a playground for chance and fortune and this promises to be the most challenging moment in California Chrome's career, as it should be.
1. California Chrome
California Chrome arrived at Belmont Park on Tuesday and got his first feel for the big oval on Wednesday. Although his margins of victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness might not necessarily suggest dominance, the flashy chestnut actually won both races rather easily. As a result, he could have more in the tank than most horses that have been in this position. And it's not just his talent that separates him from his peers, but also his intelligence. He seems to understand what's expected and is completely willing to accept the plan and guidance of his rider, Victor Espinoza. As his trainer, Art Sherman, said, California Chrome is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse.
And Untapable is a rare filly. Could she be as talented as the Kentucky Derby winner? Quite possibly. She was dominant in winning the Kentucky Oaks to remain unbeaten in three outings this year. And unlike the Derby, the Oaks was fast; she ran the 1 ⅛ miles in 1:48.68, or about a length faster than Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Untapable, however, isn't aimed at the Belmont Stakes, and there are no immediate plans for her to take on the "boys." Instead she'll make her next start at Belmont Park in either the Acorn Stakes, also on June 7, or the Mother Goose June 28. If she continues to dominate her division, she'll eventually run out of competition and probably have to try the "boys," but that's not likely to happen until perhaps August or maybe in the fall.
Trainer Todd Pletcher didn't like the way Danza came out of a recent half-mile workout and so has decided to skip the Belmont with the handsome colt and give him a rest. Danza had a rough trip when third in the Derby: He got bumped around and shuffled back in the run to the first turn, and in the stretch he was involved in some more bumping while having to alter course to find running room. Still lightly raced, he could be a major player when he returns.
4. Ride On Curlin
After a difficult journey in the Kentucky Derby, Ride On Curlin got an opportunity in the Preakness to show his talent and responded by giving the best performance of his career. Swung to the outside in the second turn, he finished strongly to be second, well clear of the third horse. His sire, Curlin, finished second in the Belmont, and it's possible Ride On Curlin could take another step forward in New York. But he'll have his fourth jockey in as many races, with John Velazquez replacing Joel Rosario, who'll ride Tonalist.
5. Wicked Strong
Wicked Strong worked five-eighths of a mile Sunday in 1:01.84 in preparation for the final event in the Triple Crown. A large, powerful colt, he reportedly has been training well in preparation for his first start since last October at Belmont Park, where he scored his initial victory. The Wood Memorial winner is another who had a rough trip in the Derby, stumbling at the start, getting bumped and racing wide throughout.
6. Commanding Curve
For the second consecutive year, trainer Dallas Stewart sent out a long shot that finished second in the Kentucky Derby. Commanding Curve swung to the outside and came home with good energy to get within two lengths of California Chrome at Churchill Downs. He then passed the Preakness to focus on the Belmont Stakes, where his stamina could make him more effective.
His Peter Pan victory was both impressive and fast: He ran the fourth quarter-mile in 24.74 seconds and was taken in hand late while completing the 1 ⅛ miles through the mud at Belmont Park in 1:48.30. And then, beyond the wire, he galloped out strongly. Lightly raced and improving, he possesses tactical speed and could be very dangerous in the Belmont.
Samraat gave an admirable performance in Kentucky and then skipped the Preakness, returning home to New York instead. His trainer, Richard Violette, said the Belmont remains a possibility for the King of Queens. In what Violette described as a "recreational move," Samraat worked a half-mile Sunday in 48.84 seconds.
9. Social Inclusion
Although he finished third in Baltimore, he retreated in the stretch and finished eight lengths behind the winner. Still, he had missed some training prior to the race because of a foot bruise, and he raced wide while making an early move. He's obviously a talented horse with enormous potential, but it's hard to imagine him being ready for either the 1 ½ miles or California Chrome on June 7.
10. Shared Belief
Unraced this year because of foot problems, the juvenile champion of 2013 appears to be approaching a return. He has had seven workouts since he resumed training in April, including three consecutive bullets. Wednesday he worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.80 at Golden Gate. He's obviously far behind in terms of development and experience, but in winning last year's CashCall Futurity he suggested that he has the sort of talent, if he develops, that could enable him to challenge the best of his generation down the road.
Also receiving votes: Hoppertunity (16), Constitution (15), Dance With Fate (11), Honor Code (11), Cairo Prince (9), Mr. Speaker (7), Australia (6), Intense Holiday (6), Candy Boy (4), General a Rod (4), My Miss Sophia (3), Top Billing (3), Tapiture (2), Commissioner (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.