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Commentary: California Chrome’s a Nice Story, But He Won’t Win

Over the past three decades, as the public has cheered for horses to win the Belmont Stakes and complete a sweep of the Triple Crown, some racing purists have been reluctant to lend their voices to the chorus.

Those of us who remember the last three colts to accomplish the feat — Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) — know that they were giants in the greatest era of thoroughbred racing in America. It would have been almost sacrilegious to put the names of runners such as Charismatic, Real Quiet, War Emblem and Funny Cide on a short list along with the sport’s immortals.

But as California Chrome tries to become the first horse since Affirmed to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the old worries about blemishing the list of Triple Crown winners hardly seem relevant now. After 11 horses since 1979 have lost bids for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, any horse who accomplishes the sweep will deserve praise and respect — and a place in history.

If this happens Saturday, it couldn’t happen at a better time. The sport has been beset with so many problems that it needs a positive story. What better story could there be than one with a rags-to-riches hero such as the ill-bred California Chrome?

The colt has generated excitement, superlatives and high expectations, and it is hard for many fans to assess his Triple Crown bid dispassionately. But handicappers should not be swayed by sentiment. They are supposed to look at horses and races with cold-eyed objectivity. And an objective analysis would conclude that California Chrome is not the standout that the public thinks he is.

Many people now talk about California Chrome as if he totally dominated his opposition in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He didn’t. He won the Kentucky Derby by 1 3/4 lengths over Commanding Curve, whose major previous achievement was a five-length loss in the Louisiana Derby. Against a weak field in the Preakness (where most of the Derby runners didn’t show up), he finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Ride On Curlin, whose record in stakes competition had been 0 for 7.

In scoring these victories, California Chrome benefited from easy trips, stalking the lead, avoiding any traffic trouble. Like Affirmed, he possesses the quickness and maneuverability to make his own breaks. Nevertheless, handicappers know to be wary of horses who win with perfect trips; no horse can avoid adversity forever.

If California Chrome has proved himself superior to his main rivals in the Belmont by two lengths or so, this is a slender edge. Big Brown won the Derby and Preakness by about five lengths; Funny Cide and Smarty Jones each ran away with the Preakness by about 10 lengths. Yet they all failed at Belmont Park. Like them, California Chrome’s edge is almost certain to shrink — or disappear — at the longer distance of the Belmont. California Chrome was tiring at the end of the 1 1/4-mile Derby and was hard-pressed to maintain his margin over Ride on Curlin in the Preakness.

The four principal challengers Saturday all appear better suited to the distance than the favorite.

 Commanding Curve rallied strongly to finish second at Churchill Downs. His significant improvement over his previous starts suggested that running 1 1/4 miles and longer is his forte.

 Ride on Curlin rallied from far behind in both the Derby and the Preakness, and he may have the genes to help him Saturday. He is a son of Curlin, who lost a photo finish in the 2007 Belmont and sired last year’s winner, Palace Malice.

 Wicked Strong won a fast Wood Memorial and then rallied to finish fourth in the Derby after a difficult trip. His lineage is filled with distinguished distance runners.

 Tonalist missed the first two legs of the Triple Crown because of an illness, but returned to action with an authoritative four-length victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

History suggests that California Chrome will face another disadvantage besides the Belmont distance. Not only is winning the Triple Crown difficult, but merely running in all three races is tough for modern-day horses. In the last 12 years, only a single horse has won the Belmont after competing in both the Derby and the Preakness. During that period, six horses ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and won the Belmont. The extra rest is clearly an important edge.

Wicked Strong has that extra rest, plus solid credentials. He was considered California Chrome’s main rival in the Derby, but he couldn’t overcome the outside post position in the field of 19. Hung wide at the first turn, he never got into striking position and he found himself in heavy traffic throughout the stretch run. Even so, he lost by less than six lengths. The Belmont figures to be a very different race.

My Belmont Stakes picks: 1. Wicked Strong. 2. Tonalist. 3. Commanding Curve.

I would be happy to be wrong, but California Chrome has too many obstacles to overcome. If he does surmount them, the sport will rightly hail a worthy champion.