06/18/2014 11:00AM

Jerardi: Figuring the Belmont Stakes

Justin N. Lane
Tonalist, being chased by California Chrome, on his way to winning the Belmont Stakes. He received a Beyer Speed Figure of 100.

The Belmont Park main track was playing extremely fast the day before the great Belmont Stakes card. On Belmont Day, it was as fast until the seventh race. It slowed down a bit before another Palace Malice tour de force in the Metropolitan Handicap. The surface slowed down more for the Belmont itself and the 13th race, an optional claimer.

That is why Norumbega’s winning time (2:27.13) in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap was assigned a Beyer Speed Figure (101) just one point higher than Tonalist’s figure (100) in the Belmont Stakes, when he ran the same distance in 2:28.52.

On the Beyer scale, those two races are actually 9 points (or 1.3 seconds at the distance) apart. But the track slowed down 8 points (1.2 seconds) by the time the Belmont and the 13th race were run.

The winner of the 13th race on Belmont Day was assigned a figure of 94. The second horse, Quick Money, got a 93. Quick Money came back to confirm that figure with a 92 when he won five days later in a similar spot.

This Triple Crown was definitely a fascinating figure-making challenge because only the Preakness was uncomplicated. It also was a fascinating look at how we all analyze Triple Crown races. Or overanalyze.

Regarding California Chrome, I had not felt as strongly about a Derby horse in six years, and for the same reason. Big Brown towered over his group on the figures. So did California Chrome.

Since Giacomo and Mine That Bird, we all tend to search for every clue, no matter how minute or irrelevant. I understand that, but I choose to ignore it. I still insist on looking at the Derby and the Preakness as horse races.

Given what went down in the Belmont Stakes (again), I must admit that my confidence in looking at American racing’s anachronistic marathon as a horse race has been shaken.

I suggested two weeks ago that everybody not be bound by recent history and just look at the 2014 Belmont Stakes as a horse race on June 7 and not as a referendum on what went down with Spectacular Bid, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Smarty Jones, and the others who won the first two legs and looked so much better on paper than their competition.

Even as those four horses all lost during this epic 36-year drought, I think you could make a pretty good case that because of other events, before and during the races, they were all the best horse on the day but just did not win. I do not think the three races in five weeks beat any of them.

My thinking was that one day the best horse would get the best situation, a little luck, and the drought would end in style. I thought California Chrome had the ideal setup – undistinguished opponents, inside post, no other early speed, a dazzling pre-Belmont workout and a dream temperament.

Then, California Chrome broke awkwardly and got stepped on right at the start. Victor Espinoza said he planned on using his colt’s inherent tactical advantage by taking the lead, but he backed off because the colt did not feel right.

We will never know what might have happened if California Chrome had broken well and cleared the field. Obviously, it would not have been difficult. If Commissioner ended up in front, it would have been almost impossible for California Chrome not to have been in front.

The surface was slowing down, but the fractions were moderate even for the speed at that stage of the card. When you watch videos of California Chrome’s early races, it was clear he was never comfortable inside or behind horses. I was never confident in the colt’s chances once the field hit the first turn.

Still, when he swung outside for room on the far turn, I thought for a second he still might have enough. My guess is that the reason he did not finish well was some combination of the uncomfortable trip, the third race in five weeks against fresher horses, the cut on the foot, and who knows what else? There is no way to quantify what the cut meant, but I think we can all agree it was not a performance enhancer.

Given that Chrome was beaten by 1 3/4 lengths, Commissioner nearly won, and it took only a 100 Beyer to win, I have to think a loose-on-the-lead, sans-cut California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.

We will never know, but that is what I will always believe.

Why does something keep happening in the Belmont Stakes? Now, that is a more esoteric question.

Are there actually racing gods waiting for a horse they consider worthy of joining War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed?

Certainly, Spectacular Bid and Smarty Jones were worthy. The former was one of the greatest horses in history. The latter was unbeaten and crushed opponents’ spirits.

Still, the answer was no.

Perhaps there is some unknown, all-powerful force deciding the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. Whatever it is, I definitely do not understand it.