ELMONT, N.Y. -- The fate of California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid will be in the hands of jockey Victor Espinoza. That much seemed certain after Wednesday’s post-position draw for the 146th Belmont Stakes.
In a field of 11, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner drew the No. 2 post, giving Espinoza plenty of options.
“I’m very excited,” Espinoza said. “I like No. 2. Hopefully, it’s my new lucky number.”
Trainer Art Sherman also thought it could be an advantageous post for Saturday’s 11/2-mile race, the longest leg of the Triple Crown.
“At least, we’ll save some ground going out of there,” Sherman said. “I think it’s a jockey’s race anyhow.”
Sherman has been impressed with how his “California rock star” has handled Belmont’s deep and sandy track surface.
“I’m very satisfied,” Sherman said. “He’s been training really good here at Belmont.”
California Chrome figures be in or near the lead from the start of Saturday’s race.
“It sure doesn’t look like there’s much speed,” Sherman said. “Who knows how it will go? It’s a jockey’s race and it will be up to Victor. With (Chrome’s) style, he can just about place him anywhere. If they’re walking on the front end, he may be on the lead.”
California Chrome, co-owned and bred by Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., will be a prohibitive favorite; his morning-line odds are 3-5.
The predicted second choice is Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong at 6-1 with Peter Pan winner Tonalist at 8-1. Both Wicked Strong and Tonalist are New York-based. But Wednesday’s draw did the home team no favors; Wicked Strong will break from the No. 9 post and Tonalist from No. 11.
“I would have liked him to be maybe a little bit (closer to the rail),” said Jimmy Jerkens, Wicked Strong’s trainer. “But it’s better than being way on the outside. At least, he’s got two horses shielding him from the crowd.”
More than 120,000 fans are expected for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes Day, which features five other major stakes. Because of the anticipated crowd at the betting windows, post time for the Belmont Stakes was pushed back to 3:50 p.m., 30 minutes later than its traditional time.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has the deepest barn in the country, entered two new faces to the Triple Crown picture: Commissioner (20-1) and Matterhorn (30-1). Both are relatively inexperienced and extreme long shots.
“We’re in the Belmont because we feel like they’re horses that want to stay the distance,” said Pletcher, who won the 2013 Belmont with Palace Malice. “They both need to improve.”
Like California Chrome, Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin and General a Rod will compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Back from the Derby after sitting out the Preakness are Commanding Curve (second in the Derby), Wicked Strong (fourth), Samraat (fifth) and Medal Count (eighth). Completing the field is 30-1 long shot Matuszak, second in Pimlico’s Tesio Stakes and trained by Bill Mott.
Wearing his lucky cowboy hat, Steve Coburn wasn’t concerned. When asked who worried him most among the opponents, his answer was simple: “Nobody.”
More daunting is history. No horse has won the coveted triple since Affirmed in 1978.
Twelve times since, the sterling Triple Crown trophy has been hauled out of storage for Belmont Stakes Day and 12 times it’s gone right back into a vault. Designed by Tiffany, the tri-pointed trophy looks like an inverted pyramid. Introduced in 1950, it’s only been presented three times and not once in 36 years.
“It’s sinking in pretty quick what we’re trying to do,” Coburn said as he stood next to the trophy. “It’s been a tremendous ride – all because of this horse. … It’s all coming to the point of the pyramid, just like the Triple Crown trophy.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.