Beychok: My heart’s with California Chrome, but my wallet won’t be

Assistant trainer Alan Sherman leads Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome to his stall at Belmont Park in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman leads Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome to his stall at Belmont Park in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

It was early summer of 1978.

Jimmy Carter was president. Charlie Mac was still coaching the LSU football Tigers. And the horse racing world had just watched Affirmed win the Triple Crown in an epic battle with rival Alydar.

Winning the Triple Crown seemed almost common. After all, Seattle Slew had won it the previous year and Secretariat just five years before him. With three winners in seven years, horse racing fans might have thought it was too easy.

But a 34-year Triple Crown drought has proved how wrong we were.

The Triple Crown races are only open to 3-year-olds, so horses have but one shot at glory. So if it was so easy back in the ’70s, why hasn’t another horse won it since?

Since Affirmed, there have been 11 horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but failed to win the final jewel in the Triple Crown: the test of champions known as the Belmont Stakes.

Some of the horses who failed were superstars: Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence and Silver Charm were worthy of the Triple Crown but couldn’t get the job done.

Why? It’s a tough question, but the easiest answer is right in front of us: Winning three races in a five-week span against the best of the generation is a tall task.

I like to think of it in athletic terms because horses are athletes, after all. Take the greatest track runner of all time and ask him to run the best race of his life three times in five weeks. Keeping your top form for five weeks is nearly impossible for the world’s greatest human athletes, so imagine how hard it is for a horse. California Chrome can’t just tell the trainer that he a strain in his leg and he needs a day off.

Another reason why it has been 34 years since the last Triple Crown winner, in my opinion, is the introduction of Lasix into horse racing. For humans, the drug is a diuretic that helps with swelling and high blood pressure. In horses, it has been used to help them with bleeding that occurs internally under extreme stress or racing.

In both humans and horses, it can cause dehydration. Since Lasix became almost universally used in the late ’70s in horse racing, there have been no Triple Crown winners. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The exertion level of running three races in five weeks takes a toll. That is exacerbated by dehydration caused by Lasix, making it doubly tough for a horse to recover.

This year, California Chrome is a worthy challenger of recent history after having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in comfortable fashion. Chrome has run his best races when it counted and, to win the Belmont, he must do so again because he will face a horse that will run the race of his life in the Belmont Stakes.

Who is that horse? Well, that’s what makes handicapping so unpredictable. I can predict with confidence that at least one horse will run the fastest race of his career in the Belmont. I also have confidence in predicting that it will not be California Chrome. But finding the one horse to beat California Chrome is where it gets complicated.

The challengers trying to spoil Chrome’s bid for history include Ride On Curlin, who is probably not up to the task because he just doesn’t win races. Commanding Curve ran second to Chrome in the Derby and passed on the Preakness for another shot at Chrome going a longer distance.

Wicked Strong, the Derby fourth-place finisher, was closing stoutly in the Derby and is based in New York, where the Belmont is run. General a Rod is another horse who is hoping the third try to defeat Chrome will be the charm. Medal Count and Samraat also try their luck again after losing in the Kentucky Derby. The new challengers include Tonalist, a smashing winner of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

The winner of the Belmont will come from the above list of horses. As a gambler, I cannot wager on California Chrome. As a fan of horse racing, I cannot root against him. But I recognize how difficult the task facing Chrome will be, and his odds will not reflect his true chances of winning — creating a lot of value for bettors.

My pick is Commanding Curve. A fast, fresh horse who ran closest to California Chrome in the Derby, he has every right to improve and run the race of his life.

My second choice is Wicked Strong, who ran a terrific race in the Derby as well and is back on his home turf. To round out the trifecta, I will go with Tonalist, who also has a race over the track.

Yes, that means I’m not picking California Chrome to run in the money. My heart hopes I’m wrong, but if I’m right, my wallet will be very happy.

Good luck, and may the horses all come home safely.