Hall-of-fame trainer may be Chrome’s biggest challenge


LITTLE ROCK — Searching past performances for any reason to support a longshot to pair up with California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes, I settled for a trainer and a tease.

By name, they are Bill Mott and Commissioner. The second-youngest trainer ever inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame, Mott is saddling Matuszak. Describing the colt’s eight-race career as lackluster would be a stretch. To buy a ticket on Matuszak, you must be willing to ignore that he was second and third behind Kid Cruz in his last two races and that Kid Cruz finished 16 lengths behind California Chrome in the Preakness.

Blind faith in Mott — inducted into the HOF in 1998 when he was 45 — and the horse’s excellent bloodlines are the only pluses and the pedigree is cited knowing that some thoroughbreds with impeccable bloodlines can’t outrun a mule.

My confidence in Mott is he would not run a horse in the Belmont simply to appease an owner. With Matuszak, the winner of only a maiden race, he has plenty of options other than to take on the best 3-year-olds in the country at the grueling Belmont distance. The conclusion is that Mott believes the colt will be competitive.

Commissioner, too, has the bloodlines — dad A.P. Indy won the Belmont in 1992 and his grandfather on his mother’s side was Touch Gold, who ruined Silver Charm’s try for the Triple Crown in 1997. Early in the year, when the list of leading 3-year-olds fluctuates weekly, Commissioner’s name popped up after he won a 1 1/8 mile race in Florida. Since then, he has disappointed, including a sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.

Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, told the Lexington Herald-Leader the colt’s bridle came off in the paddock at Oaklawn “… and he wasn’t nervous, but he was just kind of bull-headed in the paddock and I’m not sure if that took away from him or not.”

Notice the first paragraph mentions finding a longshot to pair with California Chrome, 3-5 on the morning line and 1 1/2 miles from becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. With the short price and the staunch conviction that he will finish in the money, the only value for a small-time horseplayer is in exacta and trifecta wagering.

Peter Pan winner Tonalist will be the wise-guy play and an exacta with the favorite will be shorter than it should be in a field of 11. Ditto California Chrome and New York-based Wicked Strong. Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin will get support because the former closed for second in the Derby and the latter did the same in the Preakness. I don’t think either would have caught California Chrome if they had gone around again.

In the first two legs of the Triple Crown, California Chrome’s cruising speed enabled him to gain a good position early in the race and pass the leaders when they tired. If he gets the same scenario on Saturday and can relax, he should win.

Folks who bet football often double up on big games such as the Super Bowl. Playing the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup, some horseplayers do the same. The 146th Belmont is not the time.

I will invest $12 and consider that the price for watching a Cal-bred take a shot at history.

If he succeeds, two things I don’t want to hear:

• The competition is not as good as in the good old days. Hogwash. Years ago, the fields were smaller. California Chrome has already beaten a total of 27 horses in Triple Crown races with the Belmont pending. Five Triple Crown winners beat fewer than 27 opponents in their three races.

• There will be a big bump in racetrack attendance. People are not going to flock to the track just because a horse with a neat history won three races in five weeks.

Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.