Horse racing is a strange sport and probably the most difficult on which to predict or make commentary. Part of the reason for that is unlike other sports where there are amateur careers and other standards on which to judge future greatness, horse racing is limited. Take for instance the fact that horses that run in the Kentucky Derby are all 3-year-olds. A horse is eligible to run if he or she turns 3 on January 1 and does not go by the horse’s actual birth date. There is only so much evidence that can be accumulated prior to the Kentucky Derby; only so many races in which the horse may have competed. When a horse like Secretariat or Affirmed races, everyone can see potential greatness. Otherwise it’s very difficult.
Each year I follow the potential field of horses and often it’s not until race day at Churchill Downs that I discover who is a potential Triple Crown threat. It’s not just about the horses ability to run fast that determines the winner. It’s also about pressure and track conditions. Horses are beautiful and intelligent animals that don’t just run because someone fires a cannon. There are so many intangibles.
So now that we have two legs of the triple crown behind us, what have we learned? Is California Chrome a legitimate pick to win the Belmont Stakes and the triple crown? Well let’s look at the facts. He has won the first two legs which of course is necessary to win the third and final race. His slow time of 2:03 3/5 in the Kentucky Derby was less than impressive on a fast track but in the end, all that mattered is he won. His respectable time in the Preakness of 1:54 4/5 was only 2/5 slower than Secretariat’s before Secretariat’s time was corrected in 2012 to 1:53, a record that still stands.
But the Belmont Stakes is different. It’s 1.5 miles and is the furthest distance these thoroughbreds will likely run in their careers. What Belmont boils down to is a) which horse has the talent and ability b) which horse has the best jockey and c) which horse wants it most. Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont Stakes because he was a great athlete with great ability but most importantly, he wanted it. He wanted to show the world his greatness. Ron Turcotte never had to use his crop to spur him on. He was just along for the ride. Even as he put distance between him and the other horses he continued to run hard, understanding that history and the record time he would set, would in all likelihood never be broken. It may sound silly but when you’re ahead by 20 lengths, (he won by 31 lengths, and he certainly knew no other horses were challenging) why keep running hard unless you want to? Boxers in the final round of a fought, when far ahead on points, often just dance around the ring, waiting for the final bell. Does California Chrome have that type of heart and desire? He answered that in the Preakness. Now he just has to execute. I’ll be there!