We’re as sentimental as the next guys — OK, maybe slightly less so — so we’ll be cheering along with everyone else for California Chrome to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history and the first since Affirmed in 1978 in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
But as gamblers at heart, we’re apt to take a shot against a 3-to-5 favorite, no matter how compelling his story is.
To that end, The Linemakers on Sporting News' Brian Blessing and Vinny Magliulo, as well as three more of our handicapping friends, have weighed in with their picks for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Consider these selections, along with your own handicapping, and go hit some winners on Saturday!
Blessing will play No. 1 Medal Count to win and place, and will use him in an exacta box with California Chrome. Medal Count finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, but had it not been for such a rough trip around the Churchill Downs track, he should have finished third, perhaps even second, Blessing believes.
Magliulo also recommends No. 9 Wicked Strong and No. 7 Samraat, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers in the Derby, respectively. Both colts have wins over the Belmont surface and should be fresh with a five-week rest.
Thoughts and picks from the rest of our panel. . . .
Brad Telias, veteran horse racing writer, who’s attending his 50th consecutive Belmont Stakes on Saturday
No. 9 Wicked Strong stumbled in the Derby but still finished fast. He has the extra rest skipping the Preakness and showed it with sharp works over the sandy Belmont strip that he's won at a mile.
No. 11 Tonalist comes off a win in the Peter Pan, which is regarded as the ideal Belmont Stakes prep. Although lightly raced, he keeps improving and has a good distance pedigree. Belmont regular Joel Rosario boosts his chances even more.
No. 5 Ride on Curlin, after rallying and gaining on California Chrome in the Preakness, now has one of Belmont's savviest riders with Johnny Velazquez, who'll need to use the tractable speed this horse has shown in earlier efforts. Strong distance pedigree (Curlin) will no doubt help.
Telias has this to say about the Triple Crown hopeful: California Chrome has benefited from some soft trips, avoiding traffic and stalking the lead. He's had it easy so far, and there may be little left in the tank after two taxing races. Let's see when he encounters some adversity. And I still feel uncomfortable with Espinoza aboard. Despite a couple of fortunate quick decisions in the Preakness, I don't think he has it for the consummate jockey's race at a mile-and-a-half.
Don't misunderstand, I'll be happy for my 50th and a Triple Crown champion if I'm wrong, but Chrome has too much to overcome.
Mike Wilkening, writer, The Linemakers
No. 10 General a Rod. Was going well in the Preakness before running into major traffic trouble after six furlongs. With a clean trip, he’s capable of upsetting.
No 2. California Chrome. Will run his race, and he’s capable of winning this stylishly, but that final quarter-mile will be the litmus test.
No. 1 Medal Count. Talented and well-rested, and the distance shouldn’t be a problem.
No. 9 Wicked Strong. Picked up some pieces late in the Kentucky Derby, but he needs to improve on that to win the Belmont.
Chris Andrews, veteran Las Vegas bookmaker and handicapper
There's not much more to say about California Chrome. Part of me wants him to win for the good of the sport. But I've been around long enough to know the Triple Crown doesn't happen often because it's really hard. That sounds incredibly simplistic, but it's also true. Horses don't win three Grade I races in five weeks at any age. To ask a three-year old to do it is too much. So I'm going to try to beat the favorite.
My top choice is No. 11 Tonalist. Christophe Clement has an incredible record training horses to go a route. Most of his success has been on turf, but I have every reason to believe he can transfer that to the dirt for this horse in this race. Tonalist’s sire, Tapit, has not had tremendous success in breeding great stayers, but he has good stamina influences on his dam side. Tonalist might have finally arrived with his powerful performance in his last race, the Peter Pan. Years ago, the Peter Pan was a prime avenue for late-blooming three-year olds. Belmont winners AP Indy, Coastal, Lemon Drop Kid and Colonial Affair came out of this race, as well as other late bloomers Slew O' Gold and Seeking The Gold. I'm betting Tonalist adds to that list.
My second choice is No. 8 Commissioner. Todd Pletcher is another trainer who can get his horses to go a route. Commissioner was second to Tonalist in the Peter Pan, so I'm putting a lot of eggs in that basket. He's a bit inconsistent but looks like he's improving. He's also got the breeding. His sire, AP Indy won this race, as well as both his grandsires, Seattle Slew and Touch Gold. His bloodlines say distance won't be the problem. We'll have to see if he's good enough.
Third choice is No. 7 Samraat. He ran a pretty decent fifth in the Derby. He has been resting since then to train up to this race. He has a good chance to be on the lead, and speed horses have been known to steal this race or at least stick around for a piece. California Chrome is the only other horse who might challenge his lead, and I think they want to take him back a bit. He’s never ran a bad race, and he broke his maiden here at Big Sandy. He has a ton of heart, which he displayed in winning the Withers and the Gotham.
Once again, here's the field for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes:
Post, Horse, Morning-line odds, Trainer, Jockey
1 Medal Count, 20/1, Dale L. Romans, Robby Albarado
2 California Chrome, 3/5, Art Sherman, Victor Espinoza
3 Matterhorn, 30/1, Todd Pletcher, Joe Bravo
4 Commanding Curve, 15/1, Dallas Stewart, Shaun Bridgmohan
5 Ride On Curlin, 12/1, Billy Gowan, John Velazquez
6 Matuszak, 30/1, Bill Mott, Mike Smith
7 Samraat, 20/1, Rick Violette, Jose Ortiz
8 Commissioner, 20/1, Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano
9 Wicked Strong, 6/1, Jimmy Jerkens, Rajiv Maragh
10 General a Rod, 20/1, Mike Maker, Rosie Napravnik
11 Tonalist, 8/1, Christophe Clement, Joel Rosario