Excitement builds for Belmont Stakes

California Chrome bids for Triple Crown


In the 36 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes to become the 11th Triple Crown winner in thoroughbred horseracing history, a dozen horses have won the first two legs only to fall short at Belmont.

This Saturday evening, California Chrome will join one of the aforementioned groups after romping to victory in the Kentucky Derby, and holding off a late-running Ride On Curlin to capture the Preakness in front of a record crowd of 123,469.

“Pure and simple, he’s a rock star,” trainer Art Sherman said of California Chrome, who has won six straight races and enters the Belmont with eight victories in 12 career starts. “I knew we had to run harder this race,” the 77-year-old told NBC after the Preakness. “He’s a real racehorse and I’m hoping that the mile-and-a-half [Belmont] is up his alley, too... It’s a dream for any trainer to do this.”

If he crosses the wire first in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome, bred by owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin for a measly $10,500, will join Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (’77), Secretariat (’73), Citation (’48), Assault (’46), Count Fleet (’43), Whirlaway (’41), War Admiral (’37), Omaha (’35), Gallant Fox (’30), and Sir Barton (’19) in the history books.

Coburn and Martin named their stable Dumbass Partners because someone told them years ago that anyone who purchases a racehorse is just that. The purple silks worn by jockey Victor Espinoza display a green donkey on the back.

Espinoza, who bid to win the Triple Crown in 2002 aboard War Emblem (eighth in the Belmont) said after the Preakness: “It’s an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome.

“It was just a crazy race ... I got more tired mentally than physically riding him,” Espinoza added. “But it worked out well, and he’s just an amazing horse.”

The most recent bid for the Triple Crown came two years ago when Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another never made it to the starting gate for the Belmont. A leg injury forced him to scratch from the race and retire. Big Brown came up short in 2008, finishing last as a prohibitive 1-4 favorite, and four years prior to that it was 1-5 heavy chalk Smarty Jones settling for second place behind Birdstone before a record crowd of 120,139.

“We think there’s a chance a new attendance record will be set, and we’re hoping to break some handle records,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations. “The combination of California Chrome going for the Triple crown with what we did with the rest of the card, with $8 million in purses and 10 stakes races in all, makes it New York’s championship day of racing.”

California Chrome is expected to face a large, competitive contingent of challengers led by Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby, and Ride On Curlin, runner-up in the Preakness. Also exiting the Derby and aiming for a start in the Belmont are Danza (third), Wicked Strong (fourth), Samraat (fifth), and Intense Holiday (12th.) Social Inclusion, third in the Preakness, is expected to join the Belmont Stakes field, as is Kid Cruz, eighth in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The provisional Belmont Stakes field also includes Tonalist and Commissioner, the respective top two finishers in the Grade 2 Peter Pan.

“It’s such a good story with this horse,” Panza said of California Chrome. “Everyone is looking forward to watching him attempt to make history.”

The 13-race card gets underway at 11:35 a.m. Grandstand admission is $10, while general clubhouse admission is $30.   

Five traditional Belmont Stakes Day contests — the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes; the Grade 1, $1 million Manhattan; the Grade 1, $750,000 Longines Just a Game; the Grade 2, $500,000 Woody Stephens; and the $150,000 Easy Goer  —will be back as part of the event. Five stakes that were not contested on Belmont Stakes Day in 2013 will also be part of this Saturday’s card. Topping the list is the Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap. Known as “The Met Mile,” the race for 3-year-olds and older at one mile on the main track is annually considered one of the most prestigious races run in North America. Also new to the lineup are the Grade 1, $1 million Ogden Phipps; the Grade 1, $750,000 Acorn; the Grade 2, $500,000 Brooklyn Invitational; and the Grade 3, $300,000 Jaipur Invitational.