As a horseman and as a racing fan, I’d very much like the answer to be: Yes, California Chrome will win the Triple Crown. But if I were a bettor, and my main interest in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes was to make money, I’d bet on one or two of his rivals.
Why? Because, even if California Chrome is the extraordinary racehorse he appears to be, the Belmont Stakes will be the biggest challenge of his life, so far, for a number of reasons.
The biggest reason is that he’s going to be facing a bunch of fresh horses, a bunch of good horses whose trainers have pointed them specifically to the Belmont. None of the four horses who finished closest to him in the Kentucky Derby faced California Chrome again in his Preakness victory, instead girding their loins to block him from being the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed did it in 1978.
Ever since California Chrome became the 13th horse since then to win the Triple Crown’s first two legs, I’ve heard and read multiple theories on why no horse has done it since then. I don’t think there is any single reason, but I do think that one factor is the curious phenomenon we’re seeing this year, of which the above paragraph in symptomatic.
That is that, since 1978, the three Triple Crown races have grown steadily in public popularity and in prestige among trainers and owners. In the last 36 years, the Kentucky Derby, especially, has become a giant spectacle, the one race that millions of people who don’t otherwise follow horse racing notice each year. And for owners and trainers, winning any of the Triple Crown classics has become a highly sought-after line on a potential stallion’s resume, especially “Kentucky Derby winner.”
But at the same time, “Triple Crown winner” has become less meaningful, much less of a priority for owners and trainers. Affirmed, along with Secretariat and Seattle Slew in 1973 and 1977, ran against many of the same horses in all three races. Those horses’ owners believed that running in those races was an important thing to do. But not anymore.
Perhaps more importantly, I think that today’s racehorses aren’t as iron fit as horses of the past. The tendency today is to run horses with far less frequency than 30, 40, 50 or more years ago. Is this because Thoroughbred breeding has produced horses who are far more fragile, or is it just a another symptom of the growing cultural cautiousness regarding so much of our lives?
I can’t say for sure, obviously, but here are some numbers: Before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, he’d raced 12 times, winning 10 of them. Seattle Slew had won a comparatively few seven of seven starts, but Affirmed had won 11 of 13. Back in 1948, when Citation won the last Triple Crown before Secretariat, he’d raced 14 times before he stepped into the gate at Churchill downs. Citation, who was said to have bottomless stamina, had raced 29 times by the end of his 3-year-old year, winning 27 of them. He would race through age 6, winning 32 of 45 starts.
For California Chrome, the Belmont will be his sixth start of the year and 12th in his lifetime—about the same as the three previous winners. Will that mean he’s a little bit fitter, a little bit tougher, than his freshly prepared rivals? Will that give him the edge over them, or will he be too tired from his exertions?
As they say, that’s why we run the race, instead of just postulating about it.
Fitness and freshness is the very narrow line you walk in training a horse for any sport, but especially for the speed and endurance sports of racing, endurance riding, eventing and combined driving. You have to push the horse hard enough, put enough stress on his systems, to develop and advance his fitness. But you also have to be able to see when to back off, when the horse would benefit more from a little bit of rest than from another hard workout or a competition. It’s a sense that you have to develop from experience, because every horse is different and because even the same horse is different from year to year.
Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we’re horribly wrong.
I’m hoping that Art Sherman has guessed right in his preparation of California Chrome for this potentially historic moment. He, and the horse’s “regular guy” owners, deserves it.