Going to the lead doesn't mean the horse has to attempt Secretariat-style greatness but it does mean the best horse is putting pressure on the inferior horses in the early stages. From the piece from last year, I asked the question of what should a good speed horse do? -
I suppose it comes down to a choose your poison situation for a horse like California Chrome: do you take the stalking trip you had for the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, knowing the rest of the field will likely apply pressure to your outside, inside, and all other sides at various point of the race - a sort of "Smarty Jones Scenario"? Or do you perhaps take the race to the rest of the field, dictating your own terms instead of the other way around? (Which could also end up being the Smarty Jones Scenario*.)
Taking note of Smarty Jones...
*The Smarty Jones Belmont Stakes is probably an apt comparison race to look at because, in many ways, that race was the poster child of how to attack a colt trying to win the Triple Crown. Smarty initially tried to stalk the pace but by the time the field was on the backstretch, he went to the front after taking shot after shot from his rivals. Much is made of Jerry Bailey and Eddington applying pressure to Smarty Jones on the backstretch, but how about Rock Hard Ten going to the lead and then coming back to provide pressure from the inside? Smarty Jones chance to win the Belmont was to open up as big of a lead as possible and make his rivals come get him in deep stretch. It almost worked if not for the early pressure that caused him to go much too fast through the first mile of the race - 1:35.40 for the mile.Looking back at last year's Belmont, Chrome getting stuck down inside (where he clearly doesn't like to be) caused him to have little left at the top of the lane (the gate issues didn't help); I think he had a better chance had he gone to the lead and applied pressure to his rivals. In terms of raw time, the pace wasn't as fast as Smarty's year (1;35.44 vs. 1:37.13), so it's not like Chrome needed to carve out suicidal splits to get to the front. That may not have made the difference - it's likely he would have lost anyway - but that strategy would have played to the horse's strength, not his weakness.
As for this year's Triple Crown hopeful, American Pharoah is a horse that clearly runs his best up near the lead. He doesn't NEED the lead, but he's also not compromised by churning out quick early fractions and running his rivals into the ground.
During his current six race win streak, Pharoah (why, oh why, do I have to spell that damn name incorrectly every time) trailed by three lengths early in the Arkansas Derby when cheap speed decided to set him up perfectly. In every other race, AP has either led the field or sat just a length or two back. In fact, you could make an argument that his Derby was the only race where he truly "stalked" the lead; there was little doubt that the leader in the Arkansas Derby was going to come back to the him (Bridget's Big Luvy, the longest shot in the field 38/1, faded to last); the field was chasing AP, not the leader.
Now let's take a look at he potential pace for this year's Belmont; here are the horses that have ran on the lead during their career:
Materiality (in the Florida Derby)
Carpe Diem (in his debut race)
And that's it. There is zero speed in this Belmont. Zero. And of the speed in the race, AP is clearly the best of the bunch.
If Pharoah goes to the lead and loses the Belmont, I don't think it will be the strategy that gets him beat but instead the same thing that's bitten all the Triple Crown failures over past almost 40 year drought: racing luck and simply not being good enough to pull it off. But in my honest opinion, his best chance at glory is to take this race to his pace-deficient rivals.