Belmont Stakes could produce another Triple Crown winner

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Photo above: 2014 Kentucky Derby finish: #5 California Chrome, #17 Commanding Curve and #4 Danza.
If that was your $2.00 trifecta bet you made $3,424.60. Photo by Bill Brines for Wikipedia

It’s the final leg of the Triple Crown, the premiere horse racing series that captures the attention of the world, especially if there is a horse that has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. We are of course talking about the Belmont Stakes.

And let’s be honest: most people have no clue about horse racing, the different stakes, classes — horse tracks. The beauty of it is you don’t have to know anything about horse racing to know about the three biggest races in the sport. Way too many horses compete in the Derby and if the winner of the Kentucky Derby then goes on to win the Preakness, there is the chance that horse will go on to win the Belmont Stakes and therefore the Triple Crown.

How hard can it be?

Considered one of the greatest race horses in history, Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, out running every other horse in all three races he looked to be in a class of his own. (Photo via Wikipedia)
Considered one of the greatest race horses in history, Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, out running every other horse in all three races he looked to be in a class of his own.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Anyone who has ever been connected to a horse that raced in these three races will tell you it is damn near impossible. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, ridden by Steve Cauthen and trained by Laz Barrera, did it in 1978. That’s 36 years if you’re getting dizzy doing the math.

In the 139 years all three races have been run, there have been only 11 Triple Crown winners.  That’s a 7.9 percent winning percentage. In the modern era, that drops even further.

From 1919, the year Sir Barton (ridden by Johnny Loftus and trained by H. Guy Bedwell) to 1948 when Citation (ridden by the great Eddie Arcaro and trained by Horace A. Jones), there were eight Triple Crown Winners, including War Admiral, ridden by Charley Kurtsinger and trained by George H. Conway; one of the greatest race horses of all time. You may remember War Admiral from the movie Seabiscuit. The two shared lineage with Man O’War and ran that famous match race won by Seabiscuit.

  • Just an after thought: 1919 was the same year the Chicago Black Sox threw the World Series. It’s undoubtedly just a coincidence.

Before we get too far afield: there were eight Triple Crown winners in 39 years. Since then there have been only three: the great Secretariat in 1973, ridden by Ron Turcotte and trained by Lucien Laurin, Seattle Slew in 1978, ridden by Jean Cruguet and trained by William H. Turner, Jr. and Affirmed in 1978.

In the 66 years since Citation did it in 1948, the winning percentage for the Triple Crown is … doing the math … 4.5 percent. Just going by the historical data, that’s about 25-1 odds of doing it, which is to say, good luck if you’re betting California Chrome will do it today (Saturday).

California Chrome finishing first in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, MD (Photo via Wikipedia)
California Chrome finishing first in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore, MD
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Those aren’t the odds you’ll be given though if you drop down to your local off-track betting site or bookie. The morning odds on the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness is the favorite in the Belmont, with odds of 3/5, which means if you bet three dollars and California Chrome wins, you’ll get $5 bucks back.

Not really a great bet, but a lot of people will be making it just to say they bet on the winner of the Triple Crown, should California Chrome accomplish this feat.

Before the Kentucky Derby on May 3, the odds of any horse winning the Triple Crown were 130-1, had you picked one to win it before post time for the Derby. This is according to odds website, Nate Silver’s premiere website for predicting everything, especially political races and trends. That’s not the odds you would have been given had you walked up to the window to make that bet. The track/betting establishment would have given you odds of 99-1.

But the horse racing prognosticators, the odds makers, evaluated every horse scheduled to run all three races and adjusted the odds accordingly. And California Chrome would have still been close to 99-1. Bookies and odds makers had California Chrome as the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but many people doubted him, due to his lineage and his trainer’s experience and style. The horse had trouble winning consistently until the owners and trainers found a new, experienced rider in Victor Espinoza

Once they put Espinoza in the saddle, owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, along with trainers Art and Alan Sherman, had a Triple Crown contender.

Just because a horse wins the first two legs of the crown doesn’t guarantee the horse will win the third. A half dozen horses have been in this same position as California Chrome, just since Affirmed won it all in 1978. And all of them failed to win the Belmont Stakes.

At a mile and a half, the Belmont Stakes, held at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, is one long race, which few horses ever race. The Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, is a challenging mile and a quarter and the Preakness Stakes, held at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland, is a mile and 3/16.

Still, when it became clear California Chrome was going to win the Kentucky Derby by at least five lengths, jockey Victor Espinoza pulled up on his ride so as not to wear the horse out.

The results of the 2014 Preakness. (Photo is screen shot from YouTube video)
The results of the 2014 Preakness.
(Photo is screen shot from YouTube video)

What that indicates is California Chrome had fuel to spare and could have flew past the mile and a quarter without losing speed, so maybe the California colt can be the first triple Crown winner in 36 years.

Let’s say you hope the favorite gets upset by a long shot; which one should you choose? California Chrome is starting from the second gate, second from the inside rail. In the first gate is Medal Count, a Kentucky-bred horse ridden by Robby Albarado and trained by Dale L. Romans. In 2014 he’s run five times, winning twice and placing second once. The odds are a sweet 20-1.

If Medal Count can stay on the rail, up with the leaders and keep California Chrome from getting far enough ahead to block in path on the rail, he can win it, provided he can keep up for a mile and a half. The best bet for medal Count might be a win, place or show, meaning he will finish in the top three.

The other factor in this race that lends itself to the favorite though is that there are only 11 horses scheduled to race. In the Derby there were 19. The more horses in a race, the more things can go wrong and get in the way of the favorites.

But that could work for Medal Count as well, considering his position.

Probably the best bet for an upset and a decent payday is Ride On Curlin, another Kentucky horse, trained by Billy Gowan and ridden by John Velasquez. The odds are 12-1 and Curlin will break from the fifth gate when the race gets the gun. They had a disappointing seventh place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but finished second in the Preakness Stakes. So far this year Ride On Curlin has finished in the money five out of six races.

This is a horse that can run with California Chrome and, given that extra quarter mile, could outlast the favorite and once again upset a Triple Crown bid.

Two other horses to look at: Samraat  and Wicked Strong, both of whom finished the Kentucky Derby in the top five.

Many bettors, myself included, will make bets like exactas, trifectas or superfectas. These are considered “exotic” bets and each one requires you to pick the top two, three of four horses in the race, respectively. I once saw a $1 superfecta pay over $800,000. These exotic bets can offer massive paydays.

For the 2005 Kentucky Derby, for instance, the trifecta, the first three positions, paid $133,000 on a $2 bet. But you had to choose the three horses to place in that order: Giacomo, Closing Argument and Afleet Alex. Giacomo had very long odds that day, but the Derby tends to have too many horses and that makes it a wild race for potentially big paydays.

How do the winning gamblers do it? The “pros” will make “wheel” bets, which are quite exotic. They will have one or two “key” horses and pick them for the first two positions (if there are two key horses). Then they will choose their other selections for the third place and if it’s a superfecta, the fourth place finish. It gets really exotic — and expensive — when putting three or more horses in each of the places you are betting.

Or you can do what us lazy guys do: pick five or six horses you like the best, box them in a superfecta and voila: you’ve just paid $360 for a $1 dollar superfecta bet. You just gotta hope four of those horses finish in the top four places and fantasize the first two places are your longest shots of the six. But it can happen: $880,000 on a $1 superfecta at Del Mar one year … okay, stop dreaming and come back to earth.

The finish of the 2014 Preakness Stakes. If this was your $1 superfecta bet it only paid $173.80. (Photo is screen shot from YouTube video)
The finish of the 2014 Preakness Stakes. If this was your $1 superfecta bet it only paid $173.80.
(Photo is screen shot from YouTube video)

My boxed six for a superfecta: California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, Wicked Strong, Medal Count, Samraat and General A Rod. Or maybe Matuszak instead of the General …

They call it gambling for a reason — there are no sure things, just educated guesses. Professional handicappers are completely correct less than half the time, even though their observations are spot on, for the most part. Something can happen; a horse is slow out of the gate, gets pushed wide on a turn or is blocked in on the rail. As the saying goes, anything can happen.

The odds are not in California Chrome’s favor, despite being the favorite. One thing that is certain, this is an important race with viewership in the hundreds of millions.

It is the eleventh race of the day and post time is 6:52 p.m. Eastern time. The Run for the Carnations will be broadcast on NBC. You better get to your bookie or OTB window early because there will surely be a lot of wagering on this one.