True test of a champion

There is little question that California Chrome comes to his historic moment at Belmont Park on Saturday in excellent position to complete the elusive sweep of the American Triple Crown.

Most of us who have been writing or privately thinking about his quest are quite aware that 11 horses during the past 36 years who were in his exact position -- and actually ran in the Belmont -- failed for one reason or another.

Yet, there is a persuasive argument that says this is the year, this is his year; this is the historic bid that will end the losing streak.

That California Chrome, with his low-cost roots, his low-profile yet accessible owners and his 77-year-old trainer who was once the exercise rider for the great horse Swaps in the mid-1950s, is riding a cosmic wave of destiny that will be hailed throughout the sporting world for a long time after the 2014 Belmont Stakes is run.

Strictly from a handicapping perspective, California Chrome has so much going for him, it is difficult to envision his defeat.

Looking down at his rap sheet of accomplishments, "CC" has done nothing wrong since his six-race winning streak began at Santa Anita in December 2013. Moreover, he looked terrific winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, galloping out with good energy after each race had been won. Yes, trainer Art Sherman said he was a tired horse by nightfall of the Preakness, but his son Alan noticed how quickly the strong-bodied chestnut colt with the distinctive white blaze recovered.

"Within two days, he acted as if he had not even run in the Preakness," the younger Sherman said.

In a sport where equine genes matter, the same seems true for fathers and sons who share training knowledge. Alan Sherman is proving to be a fine horseman while monitoring California Chrome's every meal, every step on and off the track from California to Kentucky to Maryland to New York.

Of equal import, CC has not lost a single ounce of body weight through the first two races in this demanding series. He also has trained better than ever since arriving at Belmont Park two weeks ago.

I for one watched CC's May 31 workout on YouTube. He was credited by the official clockers with a half-mile in 47.47 seconds. But to limit his effort that morning to a four-furlong workout is to diminish what he really did.

Approaching the finish line under no real urging, regular jockey Victor Espinoza stood up in the saddle only to see California Chrome maintain his lengthy stride, galloping out five furlongs in 59.59 seconds and six furlongs in 1:12.61, continuing on to reach seven furlongs in 1:26.34, while easing up to a mile in 1:40.92.

In case you're wondering, that 1:40 mile while CC was being pulled up was only a few hundredths of a second slower than the very good mile workout on June 1 turned in by one of CC's main challengers -- Wicked Strong, winner of the Wood Memorial who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

So what's not to like?

Only that California Chrome's odds in the win pool are sure to be much lower than fair considering how many before him have come this far in the Triple Crown chase with equally strong credentials only to fail to handle the 1½ mile distance, or a few fresh horses specifically pointed for the "Test of the Champion," the longest race in the series.

Logic says CC will be tough; sentiment says many of us will root for him; but the wallet says, not so fast.

The hesitation is based on one undeniable fact: Whenever a horse is going to attract huge sums of money, we should remind ourselves that racehorses are not robots.

While we often can predict their performances within fifths of a second, they do not run too many races exactly the same. Moreover, so much goes on in every race, the best of them can be defeated by seemingly less talented horses.

Man o' War lost once in his career -- to the aptly named "Upset" in the 1919 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. Native Dancer would have been unbeaten except for his shocking loss to Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome is not Man o' War, or Native Dancer. As I judge these things, CC is not nearly as good as the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, who in 1978 had to defeat a great horse, Alydar, in all three Triple Crown races.

But if California Chrome pulls off the deal, he too will deserve to be labeled "great." Winning a Triple Crown is that difficult.

Should he be defeated, his status in the sport will be determined by how close he came and by what he accomplishes in the rest of his career.

Alysheba lost his bid for a Triple Crown when he was fourth in the 1987 Belmont Stakes. But as a 4-year-old in 1988, he developed into a terrific Horse of the Year, winner of the richly endowed Breeders' Cup Classic. In 1993, Alysheba was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Some of the dynamics of this Belmont may or may not play into California Chrome's strengths. As a horse who tends to show enough early speed to be placed close to the lead, he just might be the front-runner they all have to catch. Should General a Rod jump in front, California Chrome probably will be chasing the pace. Thus, his fate may be determined by how fast he has to go while Samraat and Tonalist race alongside.

Tonalist is interesting. We really do not know how good he is. He certainly improved sharply in each of his four career starts, including his pace-pressing win in the 1⅛ mile Peter Pan Stakes over a sloppy Belmont racing surface May 10.

While a moderate pace would be to California Chrome's advantage -- as it was in the Kentucky Derby -- Tonalist also might appreciate a non-taxing pace.

A fast pace might cook all the horses involved and give stretch-running Wicked Strong, Medal Count, Commanding Curve, Ride On Curlin and/or Commissioner a serious boost. A lot is riding on how the first six furlongs play out.

If California Chrome is going to be our 12th Triple Crown winner and not the 12th horse -- who actually started in the Belmont -- who failed to complete a Triple Crown sweep in the past 36 years, he will need to live up to his very low odds and do something special. History says nothing less will do if he is going to defeat a relatively large field of 10 fit rivals while attempting to pass the well-named and truly daunting "Test of the Champion."

Belmont picks

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