Botching the Belmont?

Knowing when to jump off a bandwagon is as important as knowing when to jump on. However, even when I click on the fabulous new Windows Hindsight Magnifier 1.0, I can’t kick myself too hard for nibbling at a few California Chrome exactas in the Belmont Stakes. The performance-related factors in his favor far outweighed the factors he didn’t own significant advantages for. Just as they did in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

So how did he lose? Did the best horse really win? Did Chrome’s jockey (and yours truly) botch the Belmont?

My pre-race analysis was flawed. I tried to create value while staying aboard an overbet favorite. I see the error of my ways. So sour grapes don’t drive me to suggest Victor Espinoza might have blown the ride.

A dead-slow pace like the one we watched unfold in the Belmont Stakes gives the front-running horses a huge tactical advantage. They conserve energy for more than half the race and start their stretch sprint with fresh legs and a head-start. Commissioner and General A Rod jogged side by side with the early lead in the Belmont. And the patient, strong-finishing Joel Rosario wisely glued Tonalist right to the rump of the slow-moving leaders. All three figured to benefit from their great early positioning.

The usually reliable Victor Espinoza, aboard California Chrome, unwisely sat 3 lengths behind these weekend joggers. Then he briefly found himself trapped inside Tonalist entering the far turn, adding at least a nanosecond to the head-start the frontrunners enjoyed. Like me, Espinoza was either overconfident or overly cautious. He thought he could just flip the switch and mow down every horse in front of him, even though he’d surrendered a significant tactical advantage to them. Or he worried too much about saving his horse for the stretch and failed to wear down inferior rivals in the early stages.

As I watched the replay of the race, I frowned once again at the sight of California Chrome drifting out under pressure in the stretch. That failure to hold a straight course is a clear sign of fatigue. And it tells us that even if Victor Espinoza botched the ride, he can be excused. Any strategy he chose was going to be the wrong strategy. Chrome entered this race on the decline. It seems the wear and tear of the Triple Crown campaign tripped up another truly talented horse.

As for the winner, Tonalist still needs to prove he can handle a true Grade 1 pace scenario. For 2-turn races call it 1:11.0 or faster to the 6-furlong mark combined with a final eighth in 13 seconds or faster, just to use a little shorthand. That said, Tonalist chased down and put away a stakes-placed horse who had an easy lead, a dream trip and a brilliant ride by Javier Castellano. The level of difficulty for his victory rates very high despite the soft fractions.

Finally, speaking of botching up big moments, the post-race comments by California Chrome’s owner were idiotic. If we restrict the Belmont to horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby, we’ll be watching a lot of 4-horse Belmonts in the coming years. But given the “coward’s way out” accusation the old cowboy hurled at the owner and trainer of the winner, racing fans can look forward to a great rematch between California Chrome and Tonalist later this summer. And I’ll have a second shot at getting the analysis right!

—Roger LeBlanc

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