ELMONT, N.Y.— The tension is palpable as post positions are drawn for the Kentucky Derby. Trainers entertain nightmare visions of their wonderfully quick animals becoming trapped behind a wall of 19 other horses.
For the Belmont Stakes? Horsemen spoke as if Wednesday's draw barely mattered. With its 11/2-mile length, wide turns and smaller fields, the race presents a different set of problems.
Which might be a good thing for California Chrome, who'll start from the No. 2 post as he tries to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The Derby and Preakness champ is a 3-5 morning-line favorite.
Though some of his connections acknowledged the position is less than ideal, they shrugged it off, saying the race will turn instead on Victor Espinoza's tactical decisions. "This is a jockey's race," co-owner Steve Coburn said. "We know Chrome can do it. He can go the distance. So it's going to be up to Victor to put him in position to where he can win this race. … No. 2 — it's just another post position. We all get drawn a bad place sooner or later. You just have to make the best of it."
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman reached into the past, noting Secretariat clinched the Triple Crown from an inside post, and 11 Belmont winners have come out of the No. 2 spot in the starting gate, the last being Tabasco Cat in 1994.
The 6-1 popular upset pick is Wicked Strong, who was fourth in the Derby and scored the biggest win of his career in the Wood Memorial at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack. He's fresher than California Chrome, has run best in New York but drew post No. 9. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens is a second-generation New York trainer and knows Belmont well: "You got the big, sweeping turns and the big, long run down the backstretch to see if you should go up a little or take it easy a little. I'd have to think of all the (Triple Crown) races, this is the one where post position means the least."
Ride On Curlin and General a Rod are the only horses who join California Chrome for all three legs. Ride On Curlin will do it under his third rider, John Velazquez. His Preakness jockey, Joel Rosario, will ride Tonalist. Though he will start outside, he won the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, historically an indicator of good performance in the Belmont Stakes.
One old challenger who seems almost forgotten is Commanding Curve, second in the Derby with a late charge. "We're hoping a little extra distance will be to our benefit," trainer Dallas Stewart said.