One of American sports’ lingering questions may be answered in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon—when will a horse win the Triple Crown?
California Chrome will be the first horse since 2008 to even attempt the feat. (In ’08, Big Brown didn’t finish the Belmont Stakes; 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another scratched from the final Triple Crown leg.)
For serious fans, horse racing isn’t necessarily a sentimental sport. Handicappers like to pick winners.
Kentuckian Mike Battaglia has decades of experience with horse racing odds. He’s set the morning line odds for the Kentucky Derby since the mid-1970s, and he’s also a thoroughbred racing analyst for NBC.
For those who want to set aside Triple Crown sentimentality, we asked Battaglia for his thoughts on Saturday’s Belmont and California Chrome’s chances.
“He’s got a big chance. He’s going to be the huge favorite. It’s not going to be easy. It’s definitely going to be the toughest race that he’s had so far.
“You’ve got the horses that have ran well against him already in the Derby and the Preakness, and you’ve got especially Wicked Strong coming back off a five week layoff. He didn’t run in the Preakness and I think he could be very tough. But you’ve got a couple of new guys in there—Tonalist and Commissioner. Commissioner is really well-bred to get the mile-and-a-half, and Tonalist has got a start on the track.
“That’s a lot to face. If he does win the Triple Crown, he will have faced more rivals in all three races than any other Triple Crown winner. It’s a strong field. There’s horses in there that like to run early, there are horses bred to come off the pace.”
So who wins?
“I think Wicked Strong might have the best chance. He ran fourth in the Derby; he had a little bit of trouble. He’s a horse that’s been at Belmont for all his life. This is where he trains. He ran his first two races here. Broke his maiden here. He took time off between the Derby and the Belmont. He’s trained really well over the track, and he’s got a little bit of breeding to suggest that he can get the mile and a half.”
Wicked Strong is the second choice in the race, too.Who else could spoil a Triple Crown?
“I tell you, there’s a longshot in here—General A Rod—that just got absolutely eliminated in the Preakness. He lost all chance. He was behind the filly Ria Antonia when she stopped in the stretch. The jockey had nowhere to go. Just dropped back and lost seven or eight lengths, and really finished up strong. General A Rod is a 20-1 shot and he’s got a really good chance to at least figure into the exotics.”
What does California Chrome have going for him? And against him?
“The main factor is the distance in the Belmont. It’s a grueling race, and this is a grueling race track to run over. You really have to be at 100 percent. And, you know, Chrome has done it. He’s really looked good; he’s trained well over the track. But you never know about the mile and a half.
“He’s got early speed. He doesn’t have to rely on anybody else to set the pace for him. He could actually go out there and get to the front. He could make the lead. It all just depends on what (jockey) Victor Espinoza asks him to do. He’s what you call a ‘push button’ horse. If you want him to go fast, he can take off. But he’s a very intelligent horse. He’s a tactical horse. If he can get the mile and a half, they won’t beat him.”