California Chrome's bid for racing immortality

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 6, 2014 

Belmont Stakes Horse Racing

Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome rubbed his nose on exercise rider Willie Delgado's shoulder while hot-walking after a gallop at Belmont Park on Friday.


  • Belmont Stakes

    What: Final leg of Triple Crown

    When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Elmont, N.Y.

    TV: NBC-18

  • What: Final leg of Triple Crown When: 6:52 p.m. Saturday Where: Elmont, N.Y. TV: NBC-18

ELMONT, N.Y. — If only it was as easy as just beating the challengers that showed up in the entry box to run 11/2 miles for the first time in their careers.

If other members of his generation were all California Chrome had to push down in order to gain entrance to a club that has spent 36 years slamming its doors in the face of those who dare to knock, there would be no cautious caveat to the general optimism. He has already defeated six of the 10 rivals he is slated to face in Saturday's 146th Belmont Stakes, and his class advantage over the other four is as voluminous as the posse that trails his every move to the track these days.

Winning the toughest races of a 3-year-old Thoroughbred's career in a five-week span has never been just about being best in class, though. It's about intangibles, fortune and opportunity all lining up to create a pathway to immortality.

Secretariat did it with unmatched style, Seattle Slew with perfection and Affirmed — the 11th and, for now, final member of the Triple Crown club — with sheer guts.

If California Chrome can get his combination of brilliance and handiness to peak for 12 more furlongs, his place among such names will have a hallmark all its own.

Twelve times since Affirmed notched the sweep in 1978, various circumstances have knocked back the dual classic winners who didn't quite have the cosmos in their favor heading into the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Since the moment he literally appeared in his co-owner's dreams and arrived in the care of his 77-year-old trainer, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome had a plan for greatness mapped out for him and now stands one more good day away from making history as just the 12th horse to sweep the American classics.

The story of the modestly bred son of Lucky Pulpit, his everyman owners/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, and cherub-like conditioner has become a fairy tale yarn as the colt has rattled off six straight wins by a combined 271/2 lengths.

Should California Chrome prevail in the same test that took down such Hall of Famers as Spectacular Bid, Alysheba and Sunday Silence, it will quiet those who have deemed the Triple Crown too staunch for the modern Thoroughbred, bred more for precocity and speed.

"It would mean a lot to racing, I tell you that," said Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome. "I think we need heros right now. I think he has everything going for him, he's the people's horse, he is pretty cool about everything. Everybody just loves the horse.

"If you would have said to me the first of the year that I would be on the Triple Crown trail, I would've said, 'You're kidding me.' Here we are."

Trying to pin down what has made California Chrome so superior to this point involves myriad factors that go beyond the basic maturing that happens from 2 to 3.

The chestnut colt's efficiency of motion in particular has been singled out by both his camp and those trying to beat him. So smooth is he when he swaps leads that exercise rider Willie Delgado says he doesn't even feel the slight shift beneath him.

"If they're coming into the turn, they're on the right lead so they have to come out and then fall into the left," Delgado explained. "If you don't switch at the right time, and you stay on the right lead coming into the middle of the turn, then when you switch you have to switch back, it can get them exhausted.

"With him, you don't even feel it he's so smooth. And he does things so easy and flawless over this track (Belmont)."

No Triple Crown winner has pulled off the feat without having previously run at Belmont Park. California Chrome will be starting over the massive oval for the first time but does own wins at five different tracks and two surfaces.

The fact California Chrome has enough speed to dictate the fractions but is handy enough to rate also makes him a multi-dimensional weapon.

"The break is the key to the whole race," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled 2001 Belmont winner Point Given. "With a clean break, (California Chrome) is way better than all the other horses."

Multiple graded stakes winner Samraat is one who shares such tactical ability, having been on or close to the lead in all seven of his starts, the first five of which were victories.

During his fifth-place run in the Kentucky Derby, Samraat stayed right with California Chrome throughout and was going stride for stride with Chrome coming into the final turn.

"Nobody can sleep out there because he's going to lay it on the line, he's going to look somebody in the eye," said Rick Violette, trainer of Samraat. "All the intangible stuff, Samraat possesses. You hope you bring that kind of full hand to the table and it's a winning one."

Ride On Curlin, second by 11/2 lengths in the Preakness Stakes, joins California Chrome and General a Rod as the only three horses set to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year.

Having gotten closest to California Chrome as any this year, Ride On Curlin has trained strongly in the three weeks since and will have two-time Belmont Stakes-winning jockey John Velazquez in the irons.

"We just hope we get a clean break and a clean trip," trainer Billy Gowan said. "Everything is right on 'go.' I think he's got a heckuva shot, and he's going to love the distance."

Peter Pan Stakes winner Tonalist joins Commissioner, Matterhorn and Matuszak as horses California Chrome will be facing for the first time. No Triple Crown winner has had to face more than seven challengers in their final test.

Racing history says the odds are not in California Chrome's favor.

The colt's own history speaks otherwise.

"(California Chrome) is a very, very good horse," Violette said. "If he's a great horse, we're running for second money."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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