Style makes the fight in Belmont

Joe DiMaggio hit .325 for his career, but he never struck out more than 39 times in a season, and that happened in 1936, when he was a 21-year-old, gap-toothed rookie. With five weeks remaining until the All-Star Game, the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in baseball today, already has 39 strikeouts. In his 13 seasons, all with the New York Yankees, DiMaggio was caught stealing just nine times. In just his second season, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, who leads the National League All-Star voting, has already been caught in 12 attempted thefts. And, perhaps most amazing of all, in a long baseball career that was interrupted by World War II, DiMaggio was never, ever thrown out advancing from first to third base.

He was too smart and too perceptive for such folly, and that's the point. Even among athletes, intelligence often distinguishes greatness, separating the truly great from the very good. It could also separate California Chrome from his rivals Saturday and, more important, from the 11 horses since 1978 that have failed in the Belmont Stakes while trying to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.

Smarty Jones was one of those that faltered in New York, one jewel shy of a crown. Is California Chrome faster or more talented than Smarty Jones, whose empery was never more emphatic than in the Preakness Stakes, which he won by a record margin of 11½ lengths? No, California Chrome isn't faster, he isn't stronger, but he's smarter, and that could make all the difference, as it often does.

Stewart Elliott, who rode Smarty Jones, later said he realized in the first turn that trouble lay ahead. Purge went to the lead immediately. Rock Hard Ten, fractious before the start, became eager inside; Eddington challenged on the backstretch from the outside. In the middle of it all was Smarty Jones, who regarded any effort to restrain him as a personal affront and any eye contact as a challenge. In the mornings, at racetracks from Kentucky to New York, he routinely and disdainfully had dragged around like a teddy bear an exercise rider who once said sheepishly that he weighed "about 170 pounds" but looked like he might be a donut away from playing middle linebacker. For Smarty Jones, the voice of reason was nothing more than a soundtrack to accompany his speed. And so after stalking an opening half-mile in 48.65 seconds, he took off, running the next half-mile in 46.59. He disposed of Purge and Rock Hard Ten and Eddington and no doubt felt great about himself and triumphant, if a little tired, but Smarty Jones' self-absorbed recalcitrance caught up with him in the final yards of the 1½ miles, during which a courageous, little hood ornament of a horse ran him down.

Moments later, on the racetrack, looking like the most distraught Belmont winner ever, Birdstone's trainer, Nick Zito, told John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones, "I'm so sorry." Everybody was sorry, and quiet -- so very quiet -- except Smarty Jones, of course, who was just tired.

California Chrome won't run the second half-mile, or even the first, of Saturday's Belmont Stakes in 46.59 seconds. The 3-5 favorite in the morning line, he's too smart for such folly. And that might separate him from mistakes and the mishaps that have become endemic to the Belmont.

Since Affirmed's Triple Crown in 1978, seven odds-on (less than even money) favorites have lost the final race in the Triple Crown, while only 17 percent of the betting favorites have won, the last being Afleet Alex in 2005. Over the past 10 years, the Belmont has been especially contemptuous of form and history and expectations: The typical winner during this period has been a 15-1 long shot, or 15.23-1, to be precise.


The race has taken on the character of a house haunted by ghosts and bizarreness, with Murphy's Law incised above the entrance and with a doorbell that screams, "Boola, boola." You never know what might jump out of the shadows or swoop down from the rafters. Three recent favorites have failed to finish the Belmont, including Big Brown, who was going for a sweep of the famed series. Rank and bumped early, he inexplicably gave little when asked, and in the end, the great Tom Durkin told the hushed crowd, "A desultory Big Brown has been eased in the stretch." Funny Cide ran well but probably didn't take to the "off" track, War Emblem stumbled at the start and Silver Charm, with Free House blocking his view, didn't see Touch Gold charging on the outside in the stretch. This is where Animal Kingdom got clobbered coming out of the gate, forcing jockey John Velazquez to lose his right iron, and where Charismatic, after being rushed foolishly into a pace dispute with Silverbulletday, faltered late and broke down just beyond the wire.

Strangeness happens here, probably because neither horse nor rider is accustomed to a race that goes on for 1½ miles. Think about it: By the time the horses reach the top of the stretch, they've run a distance equal to a Kentucky Derby. And it's not just the strangeness, a by-product of unfamiliarity, that has made the Belmont in particular hard to win and brutal on favorites in recent years. David Longinotti, the director of racing at Oaklawn Park, pointed out that popularity of the entire series has encouraged large fields, and that has also made the Triple Crown races more difficult to win in recent years.

When Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, he defeated a total of 24 horses in the three races (not necessarily individual horses but total starters, since some ran in more than one of the races). Citation beat 15, and Count Fleet only 14, largely because they scared away considerable opposition, of course. Whirlaway and Affirmed each defeated 20; Secretariat 21; Gallant Fox 27; Omaha 28; Seattle Slew 29; Assault 31; and War Admiral 32. Already, in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, California Chrome has defeated 27 rivals.

If California Chrome wins Saturday and there are no scratches from the Belmont, he will have beaten a total of 37 rivals in the three races, more than any Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport. And from here, that looks likely. California Chrome is good enough to win the Belmont; most of all, he's smart enough.

A sostenuto running style has been most successful in the Belmont Stakes -- that is, a steady and sustained flow of energy. Not a burst or a rally, but a relentlessness. Over the past 20 years, the typical Belmont winner was only 3.4 lengths off the lead after the opening half-mile and 2.5 lengths behind after a mile. Six of the past 20 winners were either on the lead or within a length of the lead entering the second turn. And 13 of the past 20 winners were either leading or within a length of the lead at the top of the stretch. Who in this Belmont field has that style?

California Chrome, of course. In the Kentucky Derby, he was 1½ lengths behind the early leaders and in the Preakness, two lengths. In both races, he took a lead into the stretch and then burst clear. That's exactly what he needs to do Saturday.

He won't run a 46-and-change half-mile, even though he has sufficient speed to grab the early advantage, but he also can stalk a moderate, or even slow, pace. That's what might define his greatness: He's smart enough to do what's necessary. Samraat, General A Rod and Tonalist also have enough speed to lead early. But the slower they go, the more California Chrome will enjoy it because, quite simply, he's the fastest horse in the field. And the smartest.

Belmont Picks

1. California Chrome
2. Wicked Strong
3. Tonalist
4. Medal Count