Thursday marked the 10-year anniversary of the most unsatisfying sporting event of the 21st century.
On June 5, 2004, Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes. He passed a tiring Smarty Jones in the final strides, crushing Triple Crown hopes and dreams underfoot as he crossed the wire ahead of the horse America loved. The tone of brilliant track announcer Tom Durkin's call of the stretch run said everything.
"And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000!" Durkin yelled, as said roar engulfed the old track. "But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It's been 26 years! It's just one furlong away! … They're coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past!"
And then Durkin's voice plummets to the inflection you might have when informing the children that the family pet just died.
"Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes."
Now it's been 36 years. And it's 1½ long, merciless miles away.
California Chrome is next in a long line of horses trying to end the Triple Crown drought. He is the 13th since Affirmed won all three in 1978 to come to Belmont in search of what has become one of the most elusive prizes in sports.
I love the horse. There is a lot of Smarty Jones in the California Chrome story – the humble breeding, the common-man owners, the likeable trainer making his first trip to the sport's highest level. But I don't love the horse's chances Saturday.
Perhaps I've seen this movie too many times. I've been at Belmont for seven of the last 12 Triple Crown near-misses since '78, and while the ways to lose have been endlessly varied – stumbled at the start (War Emblem in 2002), passed in the stretch (Smarty Jones in '04), nipped at the wire (Real Quiet in '98), injured (I'll Have Another in '12), whatever – the lead-up is largely the same.
Horse wins Derby but faces doubts in Preakness. Horse wins Preakness in impressive fashion and doubts vanish. Horse arrives in New York with runaway hype and enthusiasm. Horse looks great in training as expectation turns to confidence, which turns to overconfidence, which turns to near-certainty that, yes, this time, it will be different. He will do it.
And then he doesn't do it.
There are reasons both general and specific why I believe California Chrome will be beaten Saturday, losing for the first time as a 3-year-old. The general reason is the archaic nature of the Triple Crown and the competitive disadvantage it forces upon the best horse. The specific reason is that I can foresee a race that unfolds similarly to the Smarty Belmont buzzkill 10 years ago.
The timing of the Triple Crown legs is obsolete, harkening to the days when thoroughbreds actually ran three races in five weeks. (In 1948, Citation raced seven times between April 12 and June 12, including winning all three legs of the Triple Crown.) They don't do that anymore.
California Chrome has been among the hardiest campaigners of the modern era, with 12 lifetime races already on his ledger. But until the Triple Crown he'd always had a minimum of four weeks between starts. Trainer Art Sherman, a septuagenarian from the old school, has said his preferred timing between starts is seven weeks.
In the modern climate, asking a 3-year-old to run three races at classic distances in five weeks is akin to asking a baseball pitcher to throw three complete games in a week. They're not bred for it or trained for it anymore. What worked for Count Fleet (winner of the Triple Crown in '43) and Walter Johnson doesn't necessarily work for California Chrome and Justin Verlander.
Then there is the fact that almost every other horse in the field is more rested. The only other colts that will contest all three legs of the Triple Crown are Ride On Curlin (seventh in the Derby, second in the Preakness) and General a Rod (11th in the Derby, fourth in the Preakness). Four other Belmont starters skipped one leg of the Triple (Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, Samraat, Medal Count). Four skipped both legs and ran most recently in lesser stakes (Tonalist, Commissioner, Matterhorn, Matuszak).
So the setup is rigged against California Chrome, who will break from the No. 2 post in the 11-horse field. And then there is the matter of other jockeys riding specifically to beat him – certainly moreso than anything the horse faced in Louisville and Baltimore.
This is one of the potential Smarty Jones Belmont scenarios replaying itself. Rock Hard Ten and Eddington bracketed Smarty Jones and forced him to run hard earlier than anyone would want to in a marathon race – a suicidal strategy for those two horses, but it also helped prevent the favorite from winning.
As NBC's Tom Hammond opined after that race: "They ganged up on him. Everybody took a shot at him."
Could the same thing happen this time around? California Chrome has been impressively relaxed behind horses early at the Derby and Preakness, but he is a competitive speedster who will want to race if another horse looms up alongside him. Jockey Victor Espinoza will have to be at his most prudent in dealing with early challengers and jockeys trying to box him in.
Even if everything goes smoothly through the first mile, Espinoza also will have to correctly judge when to ask California Chrome for his run. Watching Stewart Elliott move Smarty Jones too soon was déjà vu in and of itself, recalling Kent Desormeaux prematurely urging Real Quiet in 1998. It's an eternity to the finish line at the Belmont, and both Real Quiet and Smarty Jones were gassed and passed in the final strides.
The last challenge will be California Chrome's parenting. He has stamina deep in his gene pool and has outrun the reasonable expectations for a son of Lucky Pulpit and Love the Chase – but does it catch up with him here?
Chrome kicked out to huge leads in the stretch of both the Derby and Preakness but won by diminishing margins; he didn't win going away. The rationale was that Espinoza wrapped him up late in the Derby, but his pedestrian final furlongs hint at a horse that was out of gas and wants no part of going ¼ mile farther.
Which could lead to the ultimate Smarty Jones flashback: 36 years in the making, one furlong away … and passed by Medal Count in deep stretch.
I hope I'm wrong. But I believe we're headed for another colossally unsatisfying Triple Crown conclusion.
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