ELMONT, N.Y. — The tension is palpable as post positions are drawn for the Kentucky Derby. Trainers entertain nightmare visions of their wonderfully quick animals becoming trapped behind a wall of 19 other horses.
For the Belmont Stakes? Horsemen spoke as if Wednesday’s draw barely mattered. With its 1 ½-mile length, wide turns and smaller fields, the race presents a different set of problems that overshadow fears of early traffic.
Which might be a good thing for California Chrome, who will start from the No. 2 post as he tries to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion is a 3-5 favorite on the morning line.
Though some of California Chrome’s connections acknowledged the position is less than ideal, they shrugged it off, saying the race will turn instead on jockey Victor Espinoza’s tactical decisions.
“This is a jockey’s race,” co-owner Steve Coburn said. “We know Chrome can do it. He can go the distance. So it’s going to be up to Victor to put him in position to where he can win this race. … No. 2 — it’s just another post position. We all get drawn a bad place sooner or later. You just have to make the best of it.”
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman reached to the past, noting Secretariat clinched the Triple Crown from an inside post in the Belmont. Of course, that great chestnut only had to beat four other horses. California Chrome, the new-generation chestnut, will have to beat 10.
The 6-1 second choice on the morning line is Wicked Strong, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby and scored the biggest win of his career in the Wood Memorial at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack. Because he’s fresher than California Chrome and because he has run best in New York, Wicked Strong is a popular upset pick around Belmont Park. He’ll start from the No. 9 post, which isn’t to trainer Jimmy Jerkens’ liking.
“The middle seems like the place to be,” Jerkens said. “It seems like jockeys don’t have to do as much maneuvering in the early part of the race. It just makes it easier for them to settle their horse initially.”
Jerkens is a second-generation New York trainer, so he knows Belmont Park well. And he’s another who says the importance of the draw is mitigated by the length of the race.
“You got the big, sweeping turns and the big, long run down the backstretch to see if you should go up a little or take it easy a little,” Jerkens said. “I’d have to think of all the [Triple Crown] races, this is the one where post position means the least.”
Ride On Curlin, a 12-1 choice on the morning line after his second-place finish at the Preakness, drew the coveted No. 5 post. His trainer, Billy Gowan, let out a whoop.
“I’m tired of being out on the outside,” he said. “It’s a good post position, right in the middle.”
Ride On Curlin and General a Rod are the only horses who will join California Chrome for a third consecutive leg of the Triple Crown. And Ride On Curlin will do it under a third different rider, Hall of Famer John Velazquez.
Despite the constant changes and the rigorous schedule, Gowan said his horse seems fit — a touch ornery as always.
Ride On Curlin’s Preakness jockey, Joel Rosario, will ride Tonalist, an 8-1 third choice on the morning line. Though Tonalist will start outside from the No. 11 post, he’s widely considered the most dangerous new threat to California Chrome. He won the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, historically an indicator of good performance in the Belmont Stakes.
“He’s coming into the race well,” owner Robert Evans said. “I wouldn’t mind if he had a few more than four races. We don’t really know how good he is.”
Other new challengers include two Todd Pletcher-trained horses: Commissioner, a 20-1 choice, and Matterhorn, a 30-1 long shot. Pletcher, seeking his third Belmont Stakes victory, said both should be well-suited for the 1 ½ mile race. He added that California Chrome’s ability to handle the greater distance is the greatest uncertainty remaining.
“The key to the race and the key to beating him is just having a horse who will stay a little longer than he will,” Pletcher said. “At this point, the way he ran the Preakness and the Derby, I wouldn’t necessarily project that he can’t get the mile and a half. It remains to be seen.”
One old challenger who seems almost forgotten this week is Commanding Curve, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby with a late charge. He’ll start from the No. 4 post as a 15-1 choice on the morning line.
If the Derby had gone beyond 1 ¼ miles, would Commanding Curve have caught California Chrome?
“We’re hoping a little extra distance will be to our benefit,” trainer Dallas Stewart said.
Among a pack of 20-1 choices are General a Rod, steady New York-based colt Samraat and Medal Count, who was a popular upset pick leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Matuszak rounds out the field as a 30-1 choice on the morning line.
All are gunning for California Chrome of course. Trainer Art Sherman said he’s still thrilled with his horse’s fitness after six weeks away from home and the two biggest races of his life. “He looks super galloping,” Sherman said.
Without as much early speed in the Belmont as there was in the Preakness, Espinoza might be able to take his horse to an early lead and set his own pace. If that happens, it’s an open question whether any horse in the field can catch California Chrome.
Coburn made no bones about picking his horse to win before the Kentucky Derby or Preakness. And he didn’t back off after the draw at Belmont.
“We know this horse has a hell of a shot at winning the Triple Crown,” Coburn said. “And I honestly believe he’s going to do it.”
2014 Belmont Stakes post positions (and odds)
1. Medal Count (20-1)
2. California Chrome (3-5)
3. Matterhorn (30-1)
4. Commanding Curve (15-1)
5. Ride On Curlin (12-1)
6. Matuszak (30-1)
7. Samraat (20-1)
8. Commissioner (20-1)
9. Wicked Strong (6-1)
10. General a Rod (20-1)
11. Tonalist (8-1)