09/18/2014 2:39PM

Crist: History says California Chrome is a bad bet

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
War Emblem wins the 2002 Haskell in his comeback after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and then losing the Belmont. Since 1980, six of the eight horses returning to the races after winning the first two Triple Crown races but losing the third have lost their comeback race.

Before you go betting the ranch on California Chrome on Saturday in the Pennsylvania Derby, you might want to consider some cautionary recent history: Since 1980, six of the eight horses in his exact position – returning to the races after winning the Derby and Preakness and losing the Belmont – have lost their comeback race, most of them at short odds. Had you wagered a deuce on each of them over the last 34 years, you’d have ventured $16 and received a gross return of $5, for a loss of 69 percent of your investment.

California Chrome is the first Derby-Preakness winner to return to the races after the Belmont Stakes since Big Brown in 2008. I’ll Have Another (2012) and Smarty Jones (2004) were retired, the former without contesting the Belmont, the latter after a gallant second-place finish. So, just having him back at all will be an unaccustomed pleasure. Taking a short price on him might not be as happy an experience.

After running third in the 2003 Belmont, Funny Cide returned in the Haskell Invitational and finished a distant third to Peace Rules at even-money. One year earlier, War Emblem, who had won the Derby and Preakness, took his next start after the Belmont: After finishing eighth in the final leg of the Triple Crown, War Emblem came back to win the Haskell as the 3-10 favorite.

The five previous Derby-Preakness winners before War Emblem and Funny Cide who raced again (Charismatic in 1999 did not) were remarkably consistent: All of them finished second at odds from 1-5 to 8-5. It’s a small sample, and clouded by return times ranging from six weeks to nine months, but it’s remarkable that all five of them lost in good efforts that were only good enough to run precisely second.

In 1981, Pleasant Colony came back from finishing third to Summing and Highland Blade in the Belmont to miss by a head to Willow Hour in a very sloppy Travers.

In 1987, Alysheba missed by a neck in the Haskell to Bet Twice, eight weeks after finishing 14 1/4 lengths behind him when fourth in the Belmont. Bet Twice was the 6-5 favorite in that Haskell, with Alysheba 3-2 and Lost Code, who ran third, just another neck behind the top pair, the 2-1 third choice.

In 1989, six weeks after running second by eight lengths to Easy Goer in the Belmont, Sunday Silence resumed racing in the Swaps at Hollywood and had a four-length lead with a furlong to go – but Prized came and got him to win by three-quarters of a length.

Silver Charm and Real Quiet had the same result but under different circumstances, as both were sidelined for at least six months after running second in the 1997 and 1998 editions of the Belmont.

After missing by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold in the Belmont, Silver Charm was away from the races for 29 weeks, then ran second at odds of 3-10 to Lord Grillo in the Malibu at Santa Anita. Real Quiet, who lost the 1998 Belmont and the Triple Crown by just a nose, needed 39 weeks off, then came back at odds of 1-2 as a 4-year-old in the 1999 New Orleans Handicap and ran second to Precocity.

The most recent Derby-Preakness winner to return to the races was Big Brown, who paid $2.40 to win his comeback race in the Haskell Invitational.

Still want California Chrome at even-money Saturday at Parx? If you’re keeping score, that’s two winners in the last seven tries – War Emblem at $2.60 and Big Brown at $2.40 – and defeats for Pleasant Colony at 8-5, Alysheba at 3-2, Sunday Silence at 1-5, Silver Charm at 3-10, Real Quiet at 1-2, and Funny Cide at 1-1. The only thing they have in common besides winning the Derby and Preakness is that they all were named champion 3-year-old male at year’s end, whether or not they won a race of any kind after the Preakness.

The point here is not to cast shade on California Chrome and his enthusiastic followers, but to illustrate how hard it is for any horse to come back and win his first start following a break after the Triple Crown.

Granted, on paper it’s hard to beat him. Only the unreliable Bayern has run Beyer Speed Figures in the same area code as California Chrome’s, and they are the only two in the race to have exceeded the par of 105 for the last 20 runnings of the Pennsylvania Derby. California Chrome has won three Grade 1 races this year, three times as many as the rest of the field combined.

Just remember, though, how good most of those other Derby-Preakness winners looked on paper, and what happened to most of them.