ELMONT, N.Y. — Billy Gowan has a vision in his mind's eye of how Saturday's Belmont Stakes might unfold.
He pictures his horse, Ride On Curlin, pulling alongside Triple Crown aspirant California Chrome with a quarter mile left in the race.
"I'd like to be eyeing California Chrome and see who has the best horse," says the folksy Louisiana native. "I'd like to see me and him come down the stretch, because we've made it to all three dances."
Ride On Curlin and General a Rod are the only challengers who've chased California Chrome through each leg of his quest for the first Triple Crown since 1978. But as he tries to complete the historic feat at Belmont Park, the chestnut colt will face an array of potential threats. Each horse will arrive backed by some narrative explaining why he could be the one to spoil the coronation.
Rival trainers all say California Chrome is the best horse. That's hard to dispute after he ran away from the competition in the Kentucky Derby and decisively won a more difficult tactical race in the Preakness. But they still hold out hope he might falter in New York. They've watched too many fast horses lose steam down the stretch of the 1 ½- mile race to think it's impossible.
"I think it would need to be a little drop-off for him and another step forward for some of the other horses," says Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Commissioner and Matterhorn in the Belmont.
Gowan's reasons for optimism are obvious. After a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, Ride On Curlin was the horse closing the gap on California Chrome at the end of the Preakness. That's where Gowan's dream scenario comes from. If Ride On Curlin had 1 ½ miles to work at Pimlico, he figures, maybe the result would've been different.
"I thought all along this might be his best distance," Gowan says of Belmont's 1 ½ miles. "You know, he's got the pedigree to do it, and he never really quits, so I'm looking forward to running him."
California Chrome's assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, says Ride On Curlin is one of two challengers he fears most, along with Tonalist.
For Wicked Strong, the second choice on the morning line, the story isn't about past duels with California Chrome but about home cooking. The horse was a popular choice before the Kentucky Derby, in part because of his owner's pledge to donate 5 percent of Triple Crown winnings to victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. But in reality, Wicked Strong is at least as much Gotham as Beantown. He trains in New York and has run his best races in the state, including his win in the April 5 Wood Memorial.
Wicked Strong also fits the profile of recent Belmont winners in that he skipped the Preakness — Afleet Alex in 2005 was the last to win at Pimlico and again at Belmont Park — and will run on five weeks' rest.
Wicked Strong trainer Jimmy Jerkens doesn't put too much stock in horses loving particular tracks. "But it seems to be glaring in this case," he says. "He's been a lot better here. We'd like to think the New York tracks are up his alley."
That affinity for New York has made Wicked Strong a popular pick again this week.
"California Chrome is the best horse in the field, but Wicked Strong is the only horse who can beat him," says Ron Sanchez, who owns previous Chrome challenger Social Inclusion. "He really fits this track."
The same could be said for Tonalist, the hot newcomer to this year's Triple Crown dance. He won the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, and Sherman noted how good he's looked working out on the track this week.
But Tonalist is lightly tested, with only four races on his resume, and his connections acknowledge they're unsure how good he really is.
"Is he a great horse or a nice horse? We don't know that," says trainer Christophe Clement. "He's a very good looking horse. He's got the most amazing stride."
In describing his colt's strengths, Clement sounds almost as if he's talking about California Chrome. "Obviously, he's been versatile in his races, being on the lead in the Peter Pan and coming from out of it in some other races," he says of Tonalist. "The great thing with him is being versatile. The jock's got the choice of whatever he wants to do."
The French-born Clement is also a relative newcomer to the Triple Crown. Despite ranking among the most consistent money winners in the U.S., he has saddled only one horse in any of the three races — Dynever in the 2003 Belmont. He garners most of his wins on turf.
If Ride On Curlin is recognized for chasing California Chrome in the Preakness, perhaps Commanding Curve should get the same respect for charging to a second-place finish as a 38-1 underdog in the Kentucky Derby. It was a virtual repeat for trainer Dallas Stewart, whose Golden Soul finished second in the 2013 Derby as a 34-1 choice.
But Golden Soul finished ninth in last year's Belmont, and handicappers seem skeptical of Commanding Curve's chances to do much better.
"Every year in the Kentucky Derby, we see horses who are big long shots laying way back and waiting for the rest of the field to self-destruct," says NBC analyst Randy Moss. "Horses who do that are generally overrated."
Stewart, not surprisingly, looks at his horse's chances differently. Like Gowan with the Preakness, he wonders if Commanding Curve might have caught California Chrome if he'd had a little more track at Churchill Downs.
"He's going to have a little extra distance here," Stewart says of the Belmont. "You just don't know if you've got them fit enough, because they've never gone that far. You can only do so much as a trainer."