Up the Backstretch: Relay race awaits California Chrome

 

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Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Now that the tempest in a teapot is over concerning the wearing of a nasal strip by California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes, we can all focus on the actual running of the final leg of the Triple Crown.

California Chrome will be coming into the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, also called "Test of the Champion," off a solid victory in the Preakness Stakes over the late-running Ride On Curlin. Unlike the Kentucky Derby, the time for the Preakness was an excellent 1:54.84, the fastest in seven years.

There will be no discussion about the slow running time as there was after the Run for the Roses. California Chrome was challenged early in the Preakness and proved more than equal to the nine rivals in the 1 3/16-mile classic.

What strikes me is the similarity between this year's Triple Crown races and the 2004 series put together by Smarty Jones.

Ten years ago, Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track in an unimpressive 2:04. Two weeks later, he returned in the Preakness, where he destroyed nine competitors by a record 11 1/2 lengths.

It is the opinion of this observer that we are going to witness a replay of the 2004 Belmont Stakes when Smarty Jones was trying accomplish the first Triple Crown sweep in 26 years.

"It's going to be a contentious field, that's for sure," said Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of Wicked Strong, fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

Smarty Jones, ridden by Stewart Elliott, was the 3-10 favorite against eight other 3-year-olds. He was not expected to be seriously challenged on his way to immortality.

It was obvious the mission of the other jockeys in the race was not to win but deny Smarty Jones victory by any means necessary. Horses that usually didn't race near the lead pressured the favorite and Elliott felt he needed to have his mount setting the pace and not stalking.

Although Smarty had a six-length lead at the top of the stretch, he did not have enough in the tank to hold off Birdstone and win the Triple Crown.

Everything is pointing toward a replay this time around as 10 3-year-olds are likely to go against California Chrome.

In the Preakness, California Chrome was not allowed to back off down the stretch as he did in the final yards of the Kentucky Derby. After he put away Social Inclusion coming off the final turn, California Chrome had to deal with Ride On Curlin, who rallied into second and got to within 1 1/2 lengths of the favorite. Nearing the wire, it didn't seem as if Rude On Curlin was going to pass California Chrome even with a longer stretch run.

"They took pretty good shots at him and he was in a longer drive than I've ever seen him," Chrome's trainer Art Sherman said.

But, that all adds up to the other jockeys in the Belmont Stakes truly testing the champion in the longest of the Triple Crown races.

"I really think a mile and a half is no problem at all for this horse," Sherman noted.

Stewart Elliott was criticized for his ride aboard Smarty Jones, but Victor Espinoza has been aboard California Chrome through six winning races and has more experience riding in big races.

"To last that long you're going to have to take a hold of your horse the first part of it," Sherman said. "He's an easy horse to rate. If you want him to go in :48, he goes in :48. If you want him to go in :46, he'll go in :46. I don't think he needs to carry his race with him. Whatever the pace is, perfect, he can ride him that way."

It won't be easy to win the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome is clearly the best 3-year-old with a gigantic target on him. The other horses will go after him in waves trying to upset the favorite and steal the "Test of the Champion."

California Chrome has shown the ability to win the Belmont Stakes; now he just has to go out and do it.

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