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Hoge: Predicting The Unpredictable Belmont Stakes

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California Chrome. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

California Chrome. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — Unpredictability.

It’s what makes horse racing great. It’s what makes it maddening.

It’s what gives you a chance a haul in a big return on a $1 bet. It’s what leaves you ripping 20 tickets in half because you left a 38-1 second-place finisher out of your Kentucky Derby exotics.

Unpredictability applies to any horse race, whether that’s the first race at Arlington on a Saturday or the Kentucky Derby every May.

But it especially applies to the Belmont Stakes, where Triple Crown dreams have gone to die 12 times since Affirmed last won the Derby-Preakness-Belmont trifecta in 1978.

Tomorrow in Elmira, N.Y., California Chrome will try to end the drought, and like the last 12 horses who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he’s considered the best horse in the field — at least on paper. But paper is a dangerous object in horse racing. Past performances are a great way to handicap a race, but you can’t predict the future solely on the past.

There wasn’t a piece of paper that indicated Big Brown would finish dead last by 25 1/4 lengths at the Belmont in 2008. There wasn’t a piece of paper that indicated War Emblem would lose by 19 1/2 lengths in 2002. And there wasn’t a piece of paper that indicated I’ll Have Another would pull out of the race the day before the 2012 Belmont.

What makes the Belmont so unpredictable is it’s uniqueness. There isn’t another graded stakes race run at 1.5 miles. None of the horses in the field have done it before. In many ways, it’s like a first-timer participating in a marathon.  You can train for months, but you never actually run the 26.2 miles until race day, and you don’t know how your body is going to handle the last five miles until you get to that point.

Of course, in a marathon, you’re just trying to finish. California Chrome has to finish first Saturday to win the Triple Crown, and he’ll have pace and traffic to deal with for 1.5 miles.

Can someone beat him? Of course. But will they? Let’s meet the field:

(Listed by post position with morning line odds)

1 – Medal Count (20/1) - Trainer: Dale Romans; Jockey: Robby Albarado

Pedigree suggests he will like the Belmont distance, but Medal Count was a longshot at the Derby and never contended.

2 – California Chrome (3/5) - Trainer: Art Sherman; Jockey: Victor Espinoza

As the field goes into the first turn, check to see if Chrome is sitting comfortably and stalking the pace. Coming out of the first turn, check the clock. If he’s stalking and the pace isn’t overly hot, there’s a good chance Chrome comes out of the final turn on the lead and wins a sprint down the backstretch to win the Triple Crown.

3 – Matterhorn (30/1) - Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: Joe Bravo

Has good pedigree, but the results just aren’t there.

4 – Commanding Curve (15/1) - Trainer: Dallas Stewart; Jockey: Shaun Bridgmohan

The way he closed to finish second at the Derby is attractive in a long race like the Belmont, and this horse just seems to get better.

5 – Ride On Curlin (12-1) - Trainer: William G. Gowan; Jockey: John Velazquez

Consistent, versatile horse who figures to be in the money. Wasn’t quite as good as Chrome at the Preakness, but if Curve is harassed and/or gets a bad trip, Ride On Curlin could win.

6 – Matuszak (30/1) - Trainer: Bill Mott; Jockey: Mike Smith

Hasn’t won recently, and the competition who beat him (Kid Cruz) flopped in the Preakness.

7 – Samraat (20-1) - Trainer: Rick Violette Jr.; Jockey: Jose Ortiz

Speed horse who contended in the Derby but faded to fifth. Distance seems like it could be a problem. Best chance is to probably grab the lead and hope rest of field tires behind him.

8 – Commissioner (20-1) - Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: Javier Castellano

Inconsistent horse could pull off a huge upset or finish dead last. Not a bad option to throw in exotics.

9 – Wicked Strong (6/1) - Trainer: James A Jerkens; Jockey: Rajiv Maragh

Like Ride On Curlin, Wicked Strong had a tough trip at the Derby but closed strong. The difference is that Wicked Strong took the Preakness off and is coming into the Belmont rested.

10 – General a Rod (20-1) - Trainer: Mike Maker; Jockey: Rosie Napravnik

Joins Ride On Curlin as the only two horses to face California Chrome in each leg of the Triple Crown. General a Rod wasn’t a serious threat in the first two races, however.

11 – Tonalist (8/1) - Trainer: Cristophe Clement; Jockey: Joel Rosario

Winner of the Peter Pan at Belmont last month, Tonalist showed good speed on a sloppy track and has the looks of a typical Belmont Stakes spoiler. Will have to prove he can go two turns.

My picks: 

1. California Chrome; 2. Tonalist; 3. Ride On Curlin

California Chrome is far and away the best horse in this field, and Samraat is really the only contender who I could see harassing Chrome early and ruining the pace. Tonalist is an intriguing newcomer who won the Peter Pan at Belmont last month and showed great speed in sloppy conditions. Ride On Curlin nearly ran down Chrome at the Preakness and should be right there again.

Follow Adam Hoge on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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