By Danny Brewer
Despite what the morning line will say, the odds will be against horse racing hero California Chrome when he steps into the gate for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ may be the bettor’s choice, but winning the Triple Crown is a very tall order.
Three wins at three different tracks and three different distances in a five-week span is a brutal challenge. That is probably why only 11 three-year old Thoroughbreds have successfully completed the gauntlet. Since the last winner in 1978 (Affirmed), 12 other horses have tried to make it happen after winning the first two legs, but for one reason or another the third jewel was not captured. Does that mean it is time for this very exclusive club to add a new member?
“I think I am ready to give up the title of the last Triple Crown winner,” says Affirmed owner Patricia Wolfson. “In fact, I think that has become my name, Mrs. Last Triple Crown Winner. You like seeing great horses win and I think this California Chrome can be a great horse so we will be rooting for him.”
Many others will be right there with Mrs. Wolfson in cheering for Chrome. Despite his narrowing margins of victory in both the Derby (1 ½ lengths) and Preakness (1 ¼ lengths), this Art Sherman trained colt has demonstrated a commanding air of confidence that could help him become the next horse to wear the Crown. In this sport, same as any, believing is where it all begins.
“California Chrome is a different horse right now,” says Sherman. “He’s maturing and he is very confident in himself. He feels like hey, I’m here and let’s see you outrun me. That’s the confidence he gives all of us as well. He looks great and has been training really well at Belmont.”
When there is a horse riding a six-race winning streak like California Chrome, stopping his walk to the winner’s circle can be a collective effort. Because a win in a race like the Belmont is very prestigious, there are challengers standing in line to challenge. As many as 10 others could be stepping into the starting gates come Belmont day and an increased crowd means more obstacles to overcome. Of the past Triple Crown winners, Citation (1948) and Seattle Slew (1977) defeated the largest number of challengers and that was 7.
“He’s got a target on his back that’s for sure,” says Sherman. “When you have a horse running the way he has that is just part of it. I think the others know if you let him have things his way you can’t beat him.”
The mile and a half that is the Belmont Stakes presents a huge challenge to all of the runners, but especially a horse like California Chrome. As a runner that likes to stalk the pace and then move powerfully towards the wire at the top of the stretch, the distance makes for more challenges. If the pace is soft, moving early can be good as there have been more gate to wire winners in the Belmont than either the Derby or Preakness. Moving to soon, however, can be a recipe for disaster if there is not enough gas in the tank. Knowing the horse can be a key in this aspect, and Sherman has good reason to be confident in jockey Victor Espinoza as he is six wins in six starts aboard this shiny California-bred.
“Victor knows the horse and knows how to get him to relax,” says Sherman. “I haven’t given him instructions before the race because he just seems to know the horse and where he needs to be. I am not sure how the race is going to unfold, but we feel like if the pace is real soft Victor will have him galloping on the lead.”
The challenges for California Chrome are great as he runs at history, but he will defy the odds and win the Triple Crown. Why you may ask? On big reason is the law of large numbers. Time simply says it is time for another Triple Crown winner. Another reason is the story of it all. Hollywood has to be salivating over the Chrome saga as this tale would certainly be better than another remake of a 1980’s movie. Lastly and probably most importantly, California Chrome is a phenom. Special athletes like this only come around so often and he is one of those “Michael Jordan” freaky-type players. So like Mrs. Wolfson and millions of others, we say…”Go Chrome”!!!