"The Triple Crown, if it was easy to do, it would mean nothing."

— Christophe Clement, trainer of Belmont winner Tonalist

Steve Coburn’s Call for Triple Crown Reform: An Examination

Even if you consider yourself a casual fan of racing, chances are you’ve heard something about California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn’s rage against the Triple Crown system.

In an ill-timed, emotionally charged rant following his horse’s loss in the Belmont Stakes, Coburn made the very most of his last moments of mainstream television coverage — and in many eyes, went off as something of a sore loser. In his rant, which you can view here, Coburn rips the racing world for allowing rested horses to wait out the Derby and Preakness and “target” those already weary from the grueling turnaround between Triple Crown jewels.

While I respect the angle that Coburn is coming from, and agree that the setup has prohibited many Triple Crown runs from falling into place (and is likely to continue to do so), I simply can’t accept the consensus that if something is difficult, it demands change.

History

The Triple Crown is not a closed series. The Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes are three Grade 1 races that originally were not intended to lead up to one another. The term Triple Crown was first coined in 1923 by the New York Times, but didn’t stem into regular use until around Gallant Fox’s classic sweep in 1930 — and still, it wasn’t until  the time of War Admiral’s Triple Crown campaign in ‘37 that the term took on permanent use amongst all publications.

This is not to suggest that the three races are not fully entitled to the evolution they have undergone over the years into something arguably much greater than the original intent. I do, however, believe that each race should be respected on individual basis as the historically prestigious graded stakes that it is. In 1920, Man O’ War skipped the Kentucky Derby because his trainer believed it too early in the year for horses to run a mile and a quarter. He went on to win both later jewels of the Triple Crown, and become an American legend. Demonstrated here, it does not take a full sweep of the Triple Crown for a 3-year-old to claim significance in the racing world.

While at the time, the thought of the races as a series had yet to spark interest, the point stands that Man O’ War’s plan of action should remain open to future champions whose connections wish to go the extra mile for their colt’s development. The Triple Crown races are without a doubt the staples of the spring racing season — if not, in many eyes, of the year as a whole. It is not fair to the future value and altogether prestige of a promising colt that he should be made to run in a lower level stake rather than “the real deal” simply because he was not ready a month or so earlier.

Trainers Are Going To Train

 What Coburn misses in his argument is the fact that horses like Tonalist do not skip the Derby simply so as to target a weakened foe. Most often, the new shooters a Triple Crown hopeful must face in the Belmont are late-boomers who either weren’t ready at the time of the Belmont, or missed a beat in training due to some sort of setback, and were forced to reach to a later classic jewel as a compromise.

When it comes down to it, most trainers, jockeys, and owners got started off in this game simply because they love the sport. The vast majority of people in the industry would love to see another Triple Crown winner, and some have even voiced that in a sense they hoped their own horses’ campaigns would come up short against the dual classic winner. As a professional, and for their own horse and team, any trainer would love to take down a Triple Crown if it meant a Belmont victory for themselves. But as a fan, most people were rooting for Chrome. Things were not, as Coburn seemed to think, “planned against him”. People were picking good spots for their own horses to run in — if they could beat Chrome, great. If they couldn’t, great.

The Right Horse Can Still Do It

If in 1978, Affirmed could win the Triple Crown against whomever bold enough to show up against him on top of his already vicious rival in Alydar, there’s no reason to believe a similarly spectacular horse can not replicate the feat in future years. While it is true that no horse is unbeatable under the right circumstances, and there is indeed an element of luck involved in any Triple Crown run, a truly dominant horse can and will overcome the odds to win the Triple Crown.

Talk of curses and mystique aside, the Triple Crown is no more than 3 extremely challenging races contested at heightened distances from what horses are used to, against the country’s peak competition — in quick succession. A mouthful to write out, let alone accomplish, there is a reason it is called a “crown” rather than a ball cap. In taking away any one element of the Triple Crown’s challenge, we render it useless, and damage not only the great history of the sport, but the standard to which we hold the Thoroughbred breed. Patience is a virtue — and one man’s lack of it should not be allowed to cripple the legendary test of a Thoroughbred horse into something any average stakes colt can hope to accomplish.

The “Curse” Behind the Triple Crown Drought

I was not around in 1978, and thereby cannot attest to the state of the sport at the time. However, it does not take old eyes to understand the dilemma the sport has landed itself in at present times. The problem is much bigger than a spacing issue in a couple of 3-year-old races, or a so-called flaw in the Triple Crown. The fault in the Triple Crown lies not in the races themselves, but in the blood flowing in the veins of the horses who contest it.

The fact is that the Thoroughbred industry is unevenly bent to favor horses who peak early into their 2-year-old season, and shine bright, but regrettably briefly. A horse who finds success in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and perhaps a single prep race on the road to the Derby can come up lame around April of his 3-year-old year and still hope to command a high stud fee. Colts who cannot last two seasons of their own racing careers are coveted in the breeding shed for their ability to pass on early brilliance to their offspring. In a world where purses are pumped into juvenile races and tests of older, route-capable horses such as the Breeders’ Cup Marathon are shunted, owners become so entranced with finding the next 2-year-old superstar that they neglect to examine the expiration date that comes along with such horses’ brilliance.

As regrettable as the whole conundrum may be, you can hardly blame breeders - who are in things for a business - for catering to the desires of their customers, who themselves are simply out to capture the races tracks have drawn importance to. There is no one faucet of the industry to point an unwavering finger at, but change must start somewhere.

Hopes For a Better Breed

Imagine a future where value is detracted from juvenile races, and centered more squarely on longer distanced races up into horses’ four, even five, year-old seasons. By the standards of other riding disciplines, even a 6-year-old horse is still a baby. While the rush to bring a champion racehorse into his second, even more profitable career as a stud is understandable, it would be in the best interest of the breed as a whole if the industry were to give horses more time to prove themselves as runners, and thereafter focus the breeding only on those capable of staying the test of time and distance. The resulting offspring of warhorses proven over both a route of ground and the duration of more than just a 10 race career could be revolutionary.

Before the racing industry loses hope of another old-fashioned, non-watered down Triple Crown winner, it needs to come to grips with itself. The bed the racing industry finds itself lying in is the same one it has made for itself time and time again with the breeding of fine-boned speed horses. To reform the Triple Crown, we need not look to a softer, sugar-coated version of the three races. Instead, we should look at the distances our horses are bred to run in, and the champagne glass ankles they inherit to run them upon.

While we can hope and pray for a superior horse to come along in the meantime, it is only then that the true age of Triple Crown winners can return to prominence.

2014 Belmont Stakes: Field Analysis

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Affirmed (rail) out-duels Alydar to capture the 1978 Belmont Stakes, and to become the last horse in 36 years to be crowned a Triple Crown winner. Is it time for the drought to end?

1. Medal Count - Comes in rested off an eight placed finish in the Derby with a bullet 6 furlongs as his last work. While he does own one win on the dirt (a maiden special weight at Ellis Park), it seems evident at this point that the best of Medal Count shows up on the turf or Poly. Since breaking his maiden, he has yet to finish in the money over a dirt track. Both of Medal Count’s victories were on turf or Poly, as was his impressive second placed finish in the Bluegrass Stakes. A son of Dynaformer who boasts Unbridled Song as his damsire, Medal Count seems probable to relish the distance — that said, I find it unlikely that he will find his best stride on the dirt of Belmont.

2. California Chrome - The superstar of the racing industry, the one most everyone is abuzz about, California Chrome needs little introduction. Can he replicate the brilliance of his Derby and Preakness victories to quell a drought that has stretched on for 36 years? Chrome enters the grounds where so many dreams have been crushed off 6 consecutive victories — none less than 1.5 lengths. On one hand, this is a horse who packs on muscle with every start, and by all reports, seems to grow into more of a warhorse with every gallop. On the other, the bounce factor is a real thing. Is it too much to ask of this colt, no matter how dazzling a runner, to crush stakes caliber horses for the 7th time in a row? It is something to consider, as is the 1 1/2 mile question that only Chrome himself can answer. In my mind, this horse has already proven himself a throwback to the older names of his pedigree. He has already proven wrong the closest influences of his breeding by staying the 10 furlongs, and at this point, his sire and dam’s accomplishments seem irrelevant. It will be up to Chrome to go out there and prove he is the champion the world so dearly wants him to be. He has proven his class time and time again, he hasn’t missed a beat in his training (unlike Big Brown and his shoe issues, or I’ll Have Another’s tendon). The #2 post position comes off to me as a benefit to a horse who has already shown his liking for the rail, and a natural ability to stay out of trouble. So can he do it? He has brought us this far, and we can count it a blessing that horses don’t read history books or analyze their family tree. God willing a safe trip and courage to his heart — yes, he can.

3. Matterhorn - Winless aside from his maiden score, Matterhorn comes into the race off a fourth in Belmont Park’s Peter Pan Stakes. With a resume lacking the fire one might expect from a Belmont contender, Matterhorn will have much improvement to make if he is going to make his Belmont a successful one. To his merit, it is possible Matterhorn will relish the long going of the Belmont. Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a few Tapits (paired with the right distaff line, granted) that have found success going long, and Matterhorn has a bit of that promise tucked into the bottom part of his dam’s pedigree. I just don’t find it likely that he has what it takes, long-distance lover or not, to very suddenly unveil some sort of late kick that he has completely failed to hint at in his other races. If he had, say, a second in the Peter Pan, maybe even a rallying third, we would have some material to build hopes of improvements upon. But I just don’t see it happening from a horse that has failed to even hint at goodness — let alone greatness.

4. Commanding Curve - Most recently a late charging second in the Kentucky Derby, Commanding Curve has the looks of a horse on the improve. His closing abilities certainly became more refined between his 3rd in the Louisiana Derby and 2nd in Kentucky, and he is said by his connections to be eating up his food and looking every bit the spoiler.

That said, comparisons have been drawn between Commanding Curve and last year’s Derby runner-up, fellow deep closer Golden Soul. Not unlike Commanding Curve, Golden Soul skipped the Preakness in favor of the Belmont, where he put in a sharp work prior to a crushing defeat. Golden Soul has yet to hit the board in his 5 subsequent starts. Both Golden Soul and Commanding Curve have enjoyed just one victory in their careers, in spite of their respective late running efforts.

While it is not uncommon for these sort of horses to achieve a level of success in the Derby (usually second or third), the grueling straights of Belmont Park - where it does not bode well to be caught off the pace - prove a more daunting challenge. Commanding Curve will need to utilize the early speed that he showcased for a brief time in his earliest starts to get a favorable position in the 1 1/2 mile “test of champions”. If he falls back further than a handful of lengths from the early lead, there is enough class in the rest of the field for someone else to steal the race while Commanding Curve plays an unfavorable game of catch-up. Contrary to the belief that closers flourish as distance increases, in reality added ground can take a huge toll on horses who rally late, particularly those with a habit of only making it “almost there”.

5. Ride On Curlin - Comes into the race off a second in the Preakness, in what was by far the best of Ride On Curlin’s growing collection of late rallies. In previous efforts 2nd in the Arkansas Derby, and 3rd in the Rebel and Southwest, Ride On Curlin holds the edge over fellow runner-up closer Commanding Curve in that his performance was, without a doubt, not a fluke. A son of Curlin with the presence of both Storm and Cat and Seeking the Gold felt up close on his distaff, Ride On Curlin has the looks of a horse who can be expected to bring out his best rally with the increase of distance. At the top of the stretch in the Belmont, I expect him to be where he was in the Preakness, knocking hard at the door of victory. The question is whether he can reverse something of a trend of second-itis; despite all the grit and brilliance of his efforts, the fact is that Ride On Curlin has yet to prevail in any stakes event.

6. Matuszak - A fresh horse, Matuszak’s last outing came some 3 months ago in Pimlico’s Federico Tesio Stakes, where he finished second in late closing style. The horse who beat him out (by a good 3 lengths at that) was Kid Cruz, who subsequently finished a lackluster 8th in the Preakness. Given it was the third consecutive time that Matuszak was out finished by Kid Cruz, the latter’s poor performance when stepping up to graded stakes company does not bode well for Matuszak’s chances tomorrow. While his pedigree suggests some long distance potential, Matuszak’s lack of ability to race up near the pace does not spell promise, particularly given it has been since last September that he made it first to the wire.

7. Samraat - Already proven over Big Sandy, Samraat enters the 1 1/2 mile challenge of the Belmont Stakes as a graded stakes winner returning to the old stomping grounds of his debut victory. It was at Belmont that Samraat kicked off his career last fall with the 3 length victory that initiated the 5 race win streak that put him on Derby radar. A horse who likes to do his work on or just a couple beats behind the lead, Samraat has the perfect running style to pose as spoiler to the Triple Crown. It’s hard not to like the consistent effort he puts in with each start, and his evident desire to gun for the win. He is a hard knocking horse, and no matter what shapes up come Saturday, I imagine he will find continued success through the rest of his career.

That said, there are no excuses for Samraat’s lose in the Derby. A few beats before the quarter pole, there is a point where California Chrome and Samraat match strides, and are head-to-head as they charge toward the final turn. At that point in the race, Samraat - who received a similarly ideal trip to California Chrome - had no excuses for not taking charge of the race. The track was open in front of him, and there had been no major pushing earlier in the race to blame for delayed recovery — the opportunity to win was there, but he couldn’t take it. California Chrome was clearly the superior horse — and while for a moment it appeared Samraat might hang around for second, he was eventually overwhelmed by the rest of the field. The gritty, dominant Samraat we saw at Aqueduct earlier in the year seems to have mellowed out as distance has added up. Not unlike Vyjack, Samraat seems to have lost the snappiness in his final turn of foot with the extra route of ground to cover. Can he return to his old self? Absolutely. But I find it most likely that transformation will occur right about when he steps down to dirt mile races, where I truly believe he is in his best element.

8. Commissioner - Second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan Stakes, and earlier in the year, third in the Sunland Derby. He has the tactical speed necessary for a favorable placement in the early goings of the race, and with A.P. Indy as his sire and Touch Gold as his damsire, Commissioner is bred royally for the 1 1/2 mile journey of the Belmont Stakes. That said, the Peter Pan run that was by far his best effort came over a sloppy track, and nothing but sunshine has been forecast for Belmont day. His runs in both the Fountain of Youth and Arkansas Derby were clunkers to say the least, and it’s questionable weather he can match strides with the quality of horse he will encounter Saturday. In a stakes race, he has yet to be better than than 4 lengths from the winning horse.

9. Wicked Strong - Three lengths victorious over the impressive Samraat in the Wood Memorial, and a respectable fourth in the Kentucky Derby. Wicked Strong holds the edge over much of the field in that, with two solid runs at Belmont Park, he is every bit at home with the deep surface and sweeping turns of the track known as “Big Sandy”. He has been working well leading up into the race, and is bred well to cover the route of ground. Should Wicked Strong be a notch more forwardly placed than in the Kentucky Derby, and avoid shifting about in traffic, he has shown the talent to make a grinding run for spoiler.

10. General a Rod - Winner of the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day, and subsequently 2nd in the Fountain of Youth and 3rd in the Florida Derby. General a Rod, as of the few who elected to contest in the Triple Crown series as a whole, also has an 11th in the Derby and 4th in the Preakness to his credit. A speed horse, he dueled for the lead with Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth, and again stalked a beat behind him in the Florida Derby. While undoubtedly well bred for routing, and with enough early kick to secure a desirable position, the central negative is that General a Rod has yet to show any sort of dominance against graded stakes company. In Florida he played second wheel to Wildcat Red, and in neither Triple Crown race did he prove a factor. Add that to the rigors of the Triple Crown schedule he has been undergoing with seemingly no improvement, and anything beyond a minor award seems unlikely in this spot.

11. Tonalist - A fresh horse who didn’t partake in the Triple Crown trail altogether, Tonalist comes into the Belmont off a 4 length romp in the Peter Pan Stakes. While we don’t know how he might handle this new caliber of competition, Tonalist may be aided not only by his Derby and Preakness -free legs, but the second-off-the-layoff angle as well. He is working well over the Belmont dirt he know he loves, and on paper, is set up for a peak effort even more so than in his last outing. His tactical early speed should set him up for good positioning, and if the rest of the field focuses on ganging up on California Chrome, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Joel Rosario and Tonalist run off with the race. As stated earlier, there have been a number of long distance Tapits produced when paired with the correct distaff line — and similar to Matterhorn, Tonalist strikes the right side of that deal with Pleasant Colony as his broodmare sire.

Picks:

1- California Chrome

2- Tonalist

3- Ride On Curlin

Most Likely Spoiler:

Tonalist

Belmont Contender: Samraat

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Samraat edges Uncle Sigh for the win in the GIII Withers Stakes.

Pros: Already proven over Big Sandy, Samraat enters the 1 1/2 mile challenge of the Belmont Stakes as a graded stakes winner returning to the old stomping grounds of his debut victory. It was at Belmont that Samraat kicked off his career last fall with the 3 length victory that initiated the 5 race win streak that put him on Derby radar. While things never panned out for Samraat following his 2nd in the Wood Memorial and his eventual 5th in Kentucky, he has the full confidence of his connections going into the jewel of the Triple Crown most famous for its heart-breaking upsets.

A horse who likes to do his work on or just a couple beats behind the lead, Samraat has the perfect running style to be a spoiler to the Triple Crown. It’s hard not to like the consistent effort he puts in with each start, and his evident desire to gun for the win. He is a hard knocking horse, and no matter what shapes up come Saturday, I imagine he will find continued success through the rest of his career.

Cons: A few beats before the quarter pole in the Kentucky Derby, there is a point where California Chrome and Samraat match strides, and are head-to-head as they charge toward the final turn. At that point in the race, Samraat - who received a similarly ideal trip to California Chrome - had no excuses for not taking charge of the race. The track was open in front of him, and there had been no major pushing earlier in the race to blame for delayed recovery — the opportunity to win was there, but he couldn’t take it. California Chrome was clearly the superior horse — and while for a moment it appeared Samraat might hang around for second, he was eventually overwhelmed by the rest of the field. The gritty, dominant Samraat we saw at Aqueduct earlier in the year seems to have mellowed out as distance has added up. Not unlike Vyjack, Samraat seems to have lost the snappiness in his final turn of foot with the extra route of ground to cover. Can he return to his old self? Absolutely. But I find it most likely that transformation will occur right about when he steps down to dirt mile races, where I truly believe he is in his best element.

Pedigree: Samraat is sired by Noble Causeway, a 9 furlong enthusiast who nabbed second in the Florida Derby but ultimately failed to hit the money in the Triple Crown series. His grandsire is Giant’s Causeway, famous for his narrow second to Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and sire to successful routers such as Shamardal, Mike Fox, and Red Giant.

Samraat’s dam, Little Indian Girl, is a daugher of Indian Charlie who is herself a victor at 1 1/16 miles. Indian Charlie, the damsire in question, was a Santa Anita Derby winner who subsequently nabbed 3rd in the Kentucky Derby. His notable offspring include names such as Uncle Mo, Indian Blessing, and Fleet Blessing — the bulk of his offspring’s success typically found in shorter, mile-centric races rather than true routes.

Conclusion: While without a doubt a solid, gritty competitor, Samraat’s success beyond 8 to 9 furlongs seems to have a ceiling on it. True to the closest names of his pedigree, he runs like a horse who is snappiest going one turn rather than the 1 1/2 mile voyage of the Belmont Stakes. Though not without his strengths - running style being chief among them - I don’t envision him putting in the kick necessary for victory at a distance even further than that which he has already backed out at. This said, I admire the horse’s tenacity, and expect him to go on to a successful career at more limited distances once the carnival of the Triple Crown is packaged away. Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile? That’s where he has my money.

Morning at Mountaineer Racetrack.

Morning at Mountaineer Racetrack.

Belmont Contender: Commanding Curve

Commanding Curve galloping over Churchill Downs prior to his runner-up finish in the Derby. (photo: Reed Palmer)

Pros: Most recently second to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby, Commanding Curve put on an impressive display of willingness and turn of foot in his rally from the back of the pack. A horse potentially on the improve, his closing abilities seem to have become more refined between his 3rd in the Louisiana Derby and his Kentucky 2nd. He recently put in a snappy 4 furlongs at Belmont Park, and is said to be eating up his food. Up against horses potentially weary from the fierce rigors of the Triple Crown, Commanding Curve holds the edge of fresh, yet race readied, legs.

Cons: Many comparisons have been drawn between Commanding Curve and last year’s Derby runner-up, fellow deep closer Golden Soul. Not unlike Commanding Curve, Golden Soul skipped the Preakness in favor of the Belmont, where he put in a sharp work prior to a crushing defeat. Golden Soul has yet to hit the board in his 5 subsequent starts. Both Golden Soul and Commanding Curve have enjoyed just one victory in their careers, in spite of their respective late running efforts.

While it is not uncommon for these sort of horses to achieve a level of success in the Derby (usually second or third), the grueling straights of Belmont Park - where it does not bode well to be caught off the pace - prove a more daunting challenge. Commanding Curve will need to utilize the early speed that he showcased for a brief time in his earliest starts to get a favorable position in the 1 1/2 mile “test of champions”. If he falls back further than a handful of lengths from the early lead, there is enough class in the rest of the field for someone else to steal the race while Commanding Curve plays an unfavorable game of catch-up.

Pedigree: Commanding Curve is sired by Master Command, a son of A.P. Indy who was a dominant force in Grade 2-3 middle distance routes, specializing at 9 furlongs. Master Command’s dam, Lady Lochinvar (also a fan of the 9 furlongs), is a daughter of Lord At War, who won the 10 furlong Santa Anita Handicap in 1985. Lady Lochinvar’s dam, Lady Winborne, is a daughter to 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, whose talent has been passed down mostly through his female offspring.

Commanding Curve’s distaff line is headed by his somewhat bluntly named dam, “Mother”, who was twice a winner at 6 furlongs. His damsire is Lion Hearted, who spent the bulk of his career running second in short sprints. Curiously, Lion Hearted’s damsire is Alydar, famously second to Affirmed in all three jewels of the Triple Crown, and later a victor in routes such as the Travers and Arlington Classic.

Conclusion: Much of whether Commanding Curve can carry his new-found success over into the Belmont Stakes hinges on his ability to stay near the pace. There is a great deal of class present in this year’s field, and any horses stuck in the back when the action begins to unfurl may find themselves left behind out on the expanses of Big Sandy, a track not near so kind as Churchill to late-running upsetters in its biggest race. Contrary to the belief that closers flourish as distance increases, in reality added ground can take a huge toll on horses who rally late, particularly those with a habit of only making it “almost there”. Historically, few Derby runner-ups have gone on to win the Belmont, only 4 having done so since 1980.

While Commanding Curve has the look of a promising horse, and is bred decently to stretch out, he will need to validate his class in the Belmont to prove himself something other than a one hit wonder. I will not be crossing him off completely as a factor in the Belmont, but until proven otherwise, I am skeptical of his ability to become something other than a “wise-guy horse” that never quite makes things happen.

explosiive said: Hey, I'm a huge fan of racing, always have been, but I was just wondering about your opinion on California Chrome? I think he's an amazing horse. I've watched every single one of his races time and time again and I really do think he's incredible, but I think his owners are selling his image too much. Its as if they're constantly reminding people that they're blue collar people who have a horse with a pedigree containing not well known horses so everyone can make it in the business (cont)

(continued message:  but its beginning to bother me how much they try to sell this image. I’ve always thought of horse racing like that, that if you have the heart and the will power, you can make it in thoroughbred racing, I’m not sure what exactly I’m trying to say but I hope I got my point across.)

I become a fan of California Chrome about a week before the Santa Anita Derby, when I saw a video of him working out. As physically an eye-snatching horse as he is, it doesn’t take much introduction to be captivated by Chrome along his road to success. He is everything you could want in a racehorse: handsome, charismatic, a blaze-faced runner with an explosive turn of foot. Like thousands others, I was a fan almost as soon as I saw him — and he’s only grown on me with each romp.

That said, what cemented my loyalty to California Chrome was not so much the horse himself, as brilliant as he has proven himself, but the connections. Not unlike Shug McGaughey, who conditioned Orb into to the Derby winner’s circle, Art Sherman is one of those trainers that as soon as I heard speak, I was instantly a fan of. Had Chrome been a Pletcher trainee, or one of many million-dollar horses from a massive ownership, I doubt I would be cheering so loudly for him. But Chrome’s connections seem to me to be down to earth, hard-working people that remind me a good deal of the everyday Americans I know. I love to cheer on an underdog, and while Chrome’s odds did not reflect it come the first Saturday in May, his story is that of an unlikely champion. And I love that.

All this said, I do see what you mean by the owners’ self-promotion. It has never bothered me, but I get where you’re coming from with that observation. Honestly, I just think Coburn loves to talk about his horse, and seems to say exactly whatever is on his mind at the moment. It may come across as repetitive, but I think the owners mean well when they talk up their horse and his blue-collar background. I think they feel pretty blessed to be in the spot they are, and want to share that enthusiasm and thankfulness with everyone else. Their message is true: with hard work and a dream, you don’t need a million dollars to make history.

California Chrome (and his blaze)

Why do I love California Chrome?

Is it his humble upbringing? His blue-collared connections? Is it his charismatic presence in the mornings at the track? The brilliance with which he blew away the Santa Anita Derby, or his seemingly effortless romp in Kentucky? Is it the grit with which he dug in and repelled not one, but two, challenges in the final half mile of the Preakness?

No.

IT’S THE BLAZE

But SERIOUSLY.

JUST LOOK AT THIS

THAT FACE

THE LOOK OF EAGLES

Preakness 2014: Field Analysis

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Oxbow charges home under jockey Gary Stevens to capture 2013’s second leg of the Triple Crown.

1. Dynamic Impact - In his most recent effort, he prevailed by a whisker over Midnight Hawk to take the Illinois Derby. The pros here are that he showed himself to be a hard knocker in the long stretch duel, and dug in to lay it all down at the wire, showing himself to be a horse with plenty juice left after the 9 furlong test. The doubt lies in the competition he faced. Midnight Hawk has not won since he contested at his preferable distance - a mile - way back in the Sham Stakes. He has become known as a horse with something of a knack for giving in during those stretch drives, and by beating him, Dynamic Impact is joining a club more so than proving his own mettle. I have trouble imagining him out-rallying a horse as classy as California Chrome, at least at this stage in his career.

2. General a Rod - His last win came on the first of the year in the Gulfstream Park Derby, with a narrow triumph over Wildcat Red. Since then, the two have continued to tangle, with General a Rod finishing just a head behind Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth, and again a place behind him for third in the Florida Derby. Despite being bred exceptionally for distance, with Fusaichi Pegasus as his grandsire and Dynaformer as his damsire, General a Rod seems to have flattened out as route of ground has increased. While some of his Derby performance has been written off as result of being stranded from the pace, I don’t see enough talent from his pre-Derby performances to believe an alternate trip would have made too much of a difference. I don’t think he has the ability to match strides with the best of the best — at least at this distance.

3. California Chrome - The reigning king of the Kentucky Derby, and the camera-happy darling of the horse world. The strapping chestnut Chrome, affectionately known to his fans as “Junior”, will parade before Maryland with the dreams of millions strapped to his chest. A horse with an air of seeming invincibility, he comes into the Preakness off a 5 race win streak, having devoured all competition since December by a combined margin of 26 lengths. While by most he is celebrated as a superstar in the makings, much controversy has sprung from the final time of Chrome’s Derby score — 2:03.66, the second slowest of all time for a track rated as fast. On one hand, the crawling final fractions may indicate a tiring horse, but given the ease with which he won, it could merely be a reflection of his superiority over a group lacking the ability to push him to further greatness (after all, Chrome just did as little as he had to do, while the rest did all they could and still couldn’t get there). Nearing the wire, Victor Espinoza can been seen glancing over his shoulder to check the competition, and then cease riding several strides before the wire, eventually standing vertically in the irons before time to pull up. Had the pace been quicker earlier on, or a more challenging rival present to force him into a stretch rally, the final time very well may have reflected a “better” Chrome. The question of whether Chrome will demonstrate a bounce off of a grueling spring schedule is yet to be answered. As for his class, however, “Junior” seems to be head and shoulders above the rest, a man against boys.

4. Ring Weekend - Brilliant in his wire-to-wire frolic in the Tampa Bay Derby, but most recently a distant second to Our Caravan in the Calder Derby, he will be looking to prove his claim to fame as something other than a fluke. His Tapit/Cryptoclearance lineage should provide him with the stamina needed to cover the distance, and his post should aid in the forwardly placed trip that would serve him best. Sort of like a less relaxed Oxbow (who generally cut chill fractions on his leads), he will need to take command of the lead early on to run away from this lot. Given his lack of ability to stalk and pounce in the Calder Derby, and the much steeper competition that will be faced here, Ring Weekend seems unlikely to triumph here in anything but the most perfect of circumstances.

5. Bayern - A relatively green colt, Bayern didn’t make his debut until early this year, bursting onto the scenes at Santa Anita with two runaway victories under MSW/allowance conditions — the combined margin a whopping 18 lengths. His stakes debut came in the Arkansas Derby, where he set the pace before finishing a narrow third behind Danza and Ride On Curlin. Most recently, he went wire to wire in the Derby Trial, but was DQ’d for interference. With Offlee Wild as his sire and Thunder Gulch as his damsire, Bayern’s pedigree offers a wealth of stamina should he possess the mentality and physical ability to draw from it. His speed should grant him a very forward placing early on, but whether he has the class to stay the route against this sort of competition is yet to be seen. He is a more seasoned horse than he was in the Arkansas Derby, and while I’m unsure of his ability to win here, I do think he can put in a good run.

6. Ria Antonia - The winner of last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies via the disqualification of She’s A Tiger, and more recently, the runnerup Santa Anita Oaks. Ria Antonia comes into the race off a troubled sixth place finish in the Kentucky Oaks. With little claim to fame and a resume not exactly sparkling, Ria Antonia seems more than a little over her head. In horse racing anything can happen, but I sure have trouble imagining Ria Antonia as the heir to the throne of male-dominating fillies.

7. Kid Cruz - A former claimer, Kid Cruz has turned things around with decisive victories in his last two starts — both of them black type. His running style is that of a deep closer, and while he is undeniably a blue collar runner, he holds an edge over the competition in that he owns a victory over the Pimlico dirt. Having never stepped beyond the leagues of ungraded stakes company, Kid Cruz will be facing a whole different variety of horse today at Pimlico. If there is a pace meltdown up front, he should come closing, but whether or not he can out close the likes of California Chrome remains unseen. A good value play if nothing else.

8. Social Inclusion - A narrow third behind Wicked Strong and Samraat in the Wood Memorial, and beyond doubt the most hyped of Chrome’s opponents. With only 3 races under his belt, there is much left to be seen of just what kind of horse Social Inclusion is capable of blossoming into. His owners having turned down a reported 8 million for this colt, much of the enthusiasm surrounding this horse stems from his track record performance going 1 1/16 at Gulfstream. I personally do not put much stock into that performance given the crawling pace he was allowed to dictate, and the very nature of Gulfstream, where horses like Itsmyluckyday swoop in each year, set records, and then never amount to much throughout the Triple Crown. I do note, however, that he is bred well for this distance, and were he allowed to capture the lead early on, he could coast his way to fame.

9. Pablo Del Monte - In his most recent outing, the Bluegrass Stakes, he finished third behind Dance With Fate after setting the early pace. Both of his wins have come at the Polytrack of Keeneland, and to boot, neither of them were stakes.

10. Ride On Curlin - A late running second behind Danza in the Arkansas Derby, and a troubled seventh in the Derby. While I could easily imagine him closing into a placing, he has yet to take victory in a stakes competition, and I don’t see it happening today.

- Top Pick: California Chrome

It seems unlikely he can be beaten in this spot. He is the cream of the crop, and I feel the real testing will wait for the Belmont.

- Second: Bayern

- Third: Ride On Curlin

Prayers for Wise Dan in his recovery from colic surgery.
I have been blessed to see him run twice, and honestly can say I’ve never seen a finer looking athlete.

Prayers for Wise Dan in his recovery from colic surgery.
I have been blessed to see him run twice, and honestly can say I’ve never seen a finer looking athlete.