You're not a horse racing expert, but you can act like one for Saturday's historic Belmont Stakes.
All eyes, including many untrained ones, will be on California Chrome on Saturday as he tries to clinch the first Triple Crown victory in 36 years.
Don't know the first thing about horse racing? It doesn't matter. These seven tricks will help you get in on the spectacle as though you do.
- Watch California Chrome race for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 7, starting at 4:30 p.m. on NBC.
1. Learn the lingo, and use it liberally.
You'll actually get to know something about racing later. For now, just pepper your comments with some jargon.
Before the race, check out race handicappers' predictions, check the tote board for the odds and watch the horses head from the paddock to their posts. Once the race begins, listen to the call, or the horses' running positions — but don't expect to have the foggiest idea what the caller is saying. (Don't worry, the race will only take a few minutes.)
A horse that's a closer runs his best later in a race, a stayer or router is good at running distances and a front-runner runs best at the head of the field. A horse is pinched back if it's held in close quarters, and if it's boxed in it's shut off or pocketed.
Horses' distances from each other in the stretch, or the last straight section of track, are measured by a head, e.g., the length of a horse's head. At the finish line, a photo finish is so close the finish-line camera has to figure out who won, and a dead heat is an exact tie. A horse finishes on the board if he's one of the first four to finish.
2. Know what's at stake, and tell everybody else.
You probably already know that only 11 horses have ever pulled off the feat of winning all three legs of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
You might also know that since 1978, 11 have won the the first two legs only to flame out at Belmont. Two years ago, I'll Have Another won the first two legs only to scratch before making it onto track there.
There's a good reason the Belmont Stakes is called the "Test of the Champion." It's tough — very tough. Few competing horses have ever run its 1.5-mile length before, which can make the race hard to handicap, and yield some upsets.
So can rallies by great horses who got pocketed or pinched back in the Derby's more crowded field.
So can rallies by horses that ran in Louisville, then skipped out on the Preakness, giving them a crucial few weeks of rest before the Belmont. Any horse hoping for Triple Crown history must face some better-rested rivals, a fact with which California Chrome's co-owner Steve Coburn is none too pleased.
And plenty of would-be Triple Crown winners have had their hopes dashed by jockey error at Belmont, where jockeys' tactics play a bigger role. California Chrome's 42-year-old jockey Victor Espinoza and thousands of eager fans will hope he avoids the common mistake of moving too soon, or accelerating too early in the race.
3. Handicap the race yourself. (Remember that term?)
You can't feign some authority on horse racing without concocting a fervently held opinion on who will win at Belmont.
California Chrome is the Belmont-bound favorite. But among the handful of horses that could prove his top contenders for Belmont victory, experts say, are Wicked Strong, Commanding Curve, Ride on Curlin and Tonalist.
Wicked Strong was one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby and finished fourth. As a New York-based horse, he has a home-track advantage — plus, as the Washington Post's Andrew Beyer notes, his lineage is filled with strong distance runners, which could boost his Belmont chances. He's also got the benefit of having skipped the Preakness.
Same goes for Commanding Curve, who will head to Belmont similarly refreshed. He finished second in the Derby after an incredible rally, something analyst and retired jockey Richard Migliore says could boost his Belmont chances.
Ride on Curlin also turned in strong finishes at the Derby as well as at the Preakness, where he came in second. Tonalist hasn’t competed in any of the Triple Crown races, but Migliore says his distance-oriented breeding has made him "the horse that everyone should fear."
4. Bet on it.
Nothing screams "I know what I'm doing!" like advising your friends on how to spend their money, right? Right — well, as long as your friends aren't big gamblers. In that case, pay close attention.
Use Colin Bertram's primer to get a handle on what horses' odds mean and what they don't. Remember, a horse's odds reflect not how likely it is to win but how heavily other people are betting or expected to bet on it to win.
Once you've picked your favorites from the field of Belmont contenders and decided what kind of bet you want to make, examine the morning-line odds, which predict what people will probably bet on each horse. (The odds will change once betting actually has begun.)
The first number tells you how much profit your bet will get you should you win, and the second tells you how much you must bet to get it. California Chrome's 3-5 odds at the time of writing mean you have to bet $5 in order to win $3 profit, so if you bet $10 and California Chrome won, you'd get back $16.
5. Trot down Memory Lane.
Recall those halcyon days of horse racing — you know, when the only other sports worth their salt were baseball and boxing, and when your parents hadn't even met yet.
The mechanics of horse racing have changed plenty over the decades. Wealthy dynastic families ruled breeding, not commercial breeders, and as a result, horses were bred for stamina. Today, they're bred for speed.
But most fundamentally, horse racing doesn't have nearly the fan base it did in its heyday, back before pro football, pro basketball, casinos and, well, the internet horned in on its popularity. At racing's zenith, the track was the automatic mecca for gamblers.
6. Honor the greats.
Now you get to the really fun part of exercising your newfound authority: Breathlessly regaling your friends with tales of great races of yore as though you were there.
Bloviate about Secretariat's astounding 1973 Triple Crown, which he won by an unheard-of margin of 31 lengths. As the victor crossed the finish, the runner-up couldn't even fit on the television screen.
Wonder what would have happened if Man o' War, ranked the 20th century's best by Blood-Horse magazine and The Associated Press, had ever run for the Triple Crown. It wasn't around yet when Man o' War raced in the early 20th century, though he did sire some Triple Crown horses.
Reminisce about Kelso, who ran in the early '60s until he was 9 years old. Now all the Belmont contenders are 3-year-olds, and most horses are retired soon after that age to stud duty, which is far more lucrative than racing. (That was impossible for Kelso, who was a gelding, or castrated horse.)
Wax poetic about legendary filly Ruffian — even Secretariat's trainer said she might be better than his most famous horse — whose career was cut tragically short by a broken leg at Belmont in 1975. (You can still pay your respects at her grave at Belmont.)
7. Get ambitious.
If you really want to boost your expert cred, do your homework, and stake out a controversial stance or two. Read up, and weigh in, on hot-button topics like horse breeding habits, nasal strips and the sport's undeniable decline in recent decades — and what could reverse it.
California Chrome's own co-owner Steve Coburn, for one, has grumbled that the growing numbers of Derby contenders that sit out the Preakness before returning for the Belmont have made Triple Crown wins all but impossible, and he wants the rules tweaked so that only colts that run the Preakness can compete at Belmont.
"I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime, because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart," he said. "They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck."
Indeed, the decades-long Triple Crown drought, and the sport's waning popularity, have encouraged talk of tinkering with the format and timing of the three key races, and not just among figures who have, quite literally, a horse in the race. Weigh in on what you think should be done, too.
But don't limit your expressions of your newfound expertise to such existential hand-wringing.
Try picking an underdog to root for Saturday, deeming California Chrome overrated. When you place your bet, try a superfecta, naming the top four horses in the order you expect them to place.
And whatever other stories you tell your friends, make sure to leave room for one still in the making: the first time you bluffed your way through Belmont.
Just wait until next year to tell it. By then, you might actually be an expert.
This story has been updated from an earlier version.