2014 Belmont Stakes Predictions
by Trevor Whenham - 6/3/2014
We are getting very close to our latest date with destiny - California Chrome's shot at the Triple Crown. I haven't yet decided whether I think he is going to win or not - I go back and forth on it a dozen times a day. While I won't yet make a prediction on that front, there are three 2014 Belmont Stakes predictions that I do feel pretty good about:
A lot of horses will run out of their comfort zones: Horses are animals of routines. In an ideal world they would run the same type of race every time. In this race, though, that isn't likely going to be possible.
As I write this there are 12 horses aiming for the race (though I only expect 10 or 11 to actually be starters). Of that dozen there are seven that have had their best success sitting well off the pace early and closing in the stretch. There are a couple of problems with that here, though. The pace isn't likely to be strong early on, and that's a problem for closers - they like to move past horses that have been tired out by running too fast too soon. The large number of closers could make real estate tough to find when launching those moves, too - even on a track as big as Belmont. Finally, closers have just not done that well in this race. Just six of the last 28 winners have come from well off the pace early on - below typical expectations.
Given all that, I think it is very likely that at least a couple of the horses are going to try things that they aren't used to doing. The most likely candidates are Matterhorn and Commissioner - two horses from the same stable that don't have the skills on paper to win without taking some big risks. The more aggressive these closers get early on, the bigger the impact it will have on the race.
It will be one against the world: In the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome had as close to a perfect trip as you can possibly have in that crazy mess of a race. He never found trouble, settled right where he wanted to be, wasn't asked to run hard at all early on, and had the room he needed to move right when he wanted it. It's laughable how easy it was for him. The Preakness wasn't quite as easy, but it was again a very good trip.
Part of the reason for that in both cases is just luck, but it also comes down to the fact that, for some reason, opposing riders and connections have not been looking to challenge California Chrome and make things difficult for him. They have not tested him with the pace, gotten aggressive with positioning, or done anything to push him out of his comfort zone. When you let the best horse run a smooth race it isn't a mystery how things are likely to turn out.
This time around, though, I expect things to be different.
We know with little doubt that the favorite is the best horse in this field and that he is ready to run. Whether it will be horses taking risks with the pace, pushing for position, or consciously trying to shuffle California Chrome into spaces he isn't comfortable in or doesn't have a lot of room in, we are likely to see many more attempts to make things difficult for the favorite than we have to date. I'm not suggesting that anything illegal or even shady will happen. Instead of just riding their own race, though, we should see more jockeys riding to win but also to make sure California Chrome doesn't.
The time will be far from fast: When Secretariat won his Triple Crown, he did it with blazing speed - his time of 2:24 is still the stakes record more than 40 years later. Whether we see another Triple Crown winner or not, we are not going to come anywhere close to threatening that record. For one thing, this group hasn't exactly been fast. Their Preakness was respectable, but the Derby was almost comically slow. They aren't a bad group of horses, but California Chrome will not go down as one of the fastest horses of all time regardless of what he does here.
As significantly, the pace scenario just doesn't set up for a fast race. There is at most two true speed horses in the field, and as I write this the involvement of Social Inclusion is far from certain. Both horses are too good to try to run away at a suicidal pace, and neither would be pushed enough to go too fast early. With no early urgency, the race is likely to settle into a test of patience - who will blink first, and when is the time to make the perfect move? This race will be won because of strategy, not speed.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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