In the Belmont Stakes Saturday California Chrome will attempt to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds since Affirmed in 1978. Amazingly enough, since then 11 horses have won the first two races, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but come up short in this, the extreme test. The combination of three races in five weeks and the longer distance (1 1/2 miles, vs. the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby and 1 3/16 of the Preakness) has been a tough challenge for modern-day thoroughbreds to overcome.
California Chrome has been installed as a 3-5 favorite (five chances in eight) to win. I would have to say to bet against that; not that I don't think the horse can win, but the odds should not be that short. I am no expert on the field, but surely there are other top horses, most likely there are ones who are bred and trained more specifically for the longer distance.
What I will be looking for, and what the horse's trainer must insist upon to jockey Victor Espinoza, and he then to the horse, is not to make its move too soon. That home stretch seems to go on forever (the 1 1/2 mile race is once around the track--Belmont Park's track is longer than most), and when the inevitable challenger makes a bid coming around the bend, C.Chrome must hold off. It should stay in contact with the leaders, as is its habit and form in prior races, but hold back from that early move, which has been the downfall of a couple of the recent First Two'ers, instead keeping a bit in reserve for the final quarter mile. It should be a great race.
After some dramatic first-round series, things took a more predictable turn, with the final four teams being the first two in each conference. Of my two upset picks, the Nets did well to win their first series but folded up against the Heat, and something got in the way of Houston's second-round upset of San Antonio: a first round defeat by Portland. The surprise of the playoffs was the Washington Wizards, led by John Wall, who is maturing into top point guard and team leader. The saga of the Los Angeles Clippers goes on and on, but with new ownership they may finally be ready to live up to expectations.
In the final, the rematch of the Heat and Spurs has plenty of attraction. I am looking for the Spurs to pull this one out in what must surely be the last go-round at the top for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, but it won't be easy. The first game's result, tainted by the faulty air conditioning which sapped LeBron James of his ability to dominate the fourth quarter, should be discounted, but it's still a win, and the Spurs have the home-court advantage.
Not too much has emerged so far, through one-third of the year, except that pitching has re-emerged on top this year, and injuries are leading the news items day after day. There are more pitchers with top form, but their ability to stay healthy with this great stuff seems somewhat weaker. I don't think it's primarily the passing of the steroid/PED phase (which had generally already happened). Now, the pitcher who can't control the opposing offense is more the exception, rather than the one who can do (which was the exception--think of Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee) a few years ago.
Two teams have broken out of the pack (in the positive direction) with moves that seem sustainable: the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's. This could be the year when MoneyBall goes all the way. I'm not yet convinced on the Toronto Blue Jays' validity as a top team, certainly not on the Milwaukee Brewers'. We should still look for Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington to emerge as division winners.
In terms of players, Troy Tulowitzki has once again shown that he is the best spring player in baseball. It seems that his team, the Colorado Rockies, is quickly learning to lose despite his heroics, and we shall see if he can stay healthy for a full season, which should earn him an MVP. In the AL, Miguel Cabrera is having another Albert Pujols-in-his-prime kind of season, and "rookie" Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees has been the best pitcher in the (North American) majors. Let's see if the league can figure him out soon.