Belmont’s big oval presents challenge for California Chrome

At 3:35 p.m. Saturday, jockey Victor Espinoza will be sitting atop California Chrome in the starting gate at Belmont Park with 1½ miles between them and sports immortality.

California Chrome is poised to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion and first in 36 years. But the beauty of horse racing is as much as everyone wants to see him win it, his foes are going out of their way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Believe me, there will be no free lunch for the Chrome in the Belmont Stakes.

His morning-line odds are 3-5, but in reality his odds of winning the Belmont are closer to 7-5. His odds will be driven down by fans hoping to have a California Chrome historic souvenir win ticket.

An unknown factor about handicapping the Belmont is the distance. None of the horses has run this far before and most likely won’t again.

Also, Belmont Park is enormous. Its 1½-mile oval is the only one of its size in North America.

What that means to the jockeys is the visual cues are much different. It has fooled some out-of-town riders into moving too soon and, thus, running out of horse late.

If I were to offer one piece of advice to Espinoza, it would be this: Do not move or ask California Chrome for run until the quarter-pole. Do not get sucked into moving at the half-mile pole or around the far turn. Let the other jockeys move too early.

Just get California Chrome into a relaxed, steady gallop. If he is good enough, a quarter-mile brush to the finish line should be enough to win the Belmont.

That said, I am picking California Chrome to win. Maybe more with my heart than with my head. But the key to the outcome will be the steely patience of Espinoza.

My second choice is Wicked Strong (6-1), who was my pick to win the Kentucky Derby. He finished a troubled fourth but was running well late. In what I expect to be a slow-paced Belmont, I could see Rajiv Maragh sitting closer because of modest fractions.

I expect an even-handed pace, so my third choice is dangerous galloper Samraat (20-1). He ran a better-than-it-looked fifth in the Derby. The four horses I expect to be forwardly placed early on are California Chrome, Samraat, General a Rod (20-1) and Tonalist (8-1). Any of these four could have the lead into the first turn.

My fourth choice is Commanding Curve (15-1), who ran second to California Chrome in the Derby. He outran his 37-1 odds by settling far back early and rallying in the middle of the track. That will be the game plan again for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan.

I am less inclined to use Tonalist and Ride On Curlin (12-1). Both exited huge races, the kind I think they could both regress from.

A last clue is, unlike the Preakness, where I keyed California Chrome first in all my wagers, I will make some saver bets with him finishing second, too.

■ SUNSET SEMINAR — Noted author and handicapper Steve Davidowitz will give a free Belmont Stakes seminar at 6 p.m. today at Sunset Station.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.