Well before 6 a.m. Saturday, the news media began to assemble outside Barn 26 at Belmont Park. California Chrome's connections were there, too, coffee in hand.
All were waiting for California Chrome to head to the racetrack for his only grueling workout before he takes aim at the Triple Crown on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
About 6:35 a.m., he emerged from the barn as camera operators, photographers and reporters ran alongside and followed his every move. His ears were pricked the entire time, and when he reached the racetrack, he put his head down and went to work.
Several hundred people watched as California Chrome, with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, turned in an electric performance, breezing a half-mile in 47.69 seconds and covering 5 furlongs in :59.93 before galloping out in 1:12.95. The people lining the rail cheered as he motored past.
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"He's ready, he galloped out great, exactly what we wanted today," assistant trainer Alan Sherman said. "I'm confident in this horse and always have been."
Upstairs in the press box, the clockers, juggling binoculars and stopwatches, were equally impressed.
"That was a very nice work," one said.
"A big-time workout; he's still going," another said.
Finally, someone said what everyone else was probably thinking, "He might just win the Triple Crown."
Outside, the parking lot closest to the track was full. On the apron, near the official Belmont news conference area, fans mingled with curious horsemen and journalists.
"I've never seen this many people here in the morning," said Peter Gulemas, who has worked for the New York Racing Association for 20 years. "There was never a crowd like this for Smarty Jones or Funny Cide, and those were considered people's horses, especially Funny Cide, who was a New York-bred."
California Chrome, a chestnut colt with a signature white blaze, left the track and walked back to his barn for a bath. Afterward, he walked multiple loops around the shed row.
Espinoza took a red-eye from California and arrived in New York on Friday. Saturday was the first time he had seen Chrome since they won the Preakness on May 17 in Baltimore.
"He's a little stronger, has a little more weight on than the last time I saw him," Espinoza said of the horse. "This morning it was just easy for him. It was nice for him to be able to stretch his legs and get some air in his lungs. He's ready for Saturday."
This week, California Chrome will take it easy. He will walk Sunday, jog Monday, then gallop every day before jogging again on race day, when he will try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since 1978.
General a Rod a go
General a Rod, beaten just a head for third in the Preakness Stakes, has been added to the list of those seeking to derail California Chrome's Triple Crown attempt.
General a Rod worked 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 at Churchill Downs' Trackside training facility for trainer Mike Maker on Saturday morning after which Jack Wolf of co-owner Starlight Racing confirmed that the son of Roman Ruler would join California Chrome and Ride On Curlin as the only horses this year slated to run all three legs of the Triple Crown.
"He did a good work this morning. But Mike has been talking the last two weeks about how impressed he is with his energy level and how well he's doing," Wolf said. "Mike knows the horse and he feels like it's a place where we should run him. I'm game."
Owned by Starlight and Skychai Racing, General a Rod finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby where he was shuffled well back early instead of being closer to the pace as is his preference. The dark bay colt was sitting in striking position in fourth down the backside of the Preakness but again was shuffled back to next to last going around the final turn when the filly Ria Antonia began tiring badly in front of him.
Even with that loss of momentum, General a Rod still closed well to get fourth, finishing just a head behind Social Inclusion.
General a Rod is slated to ship to New York on Thursday, and jockey Rosie Napravnik will have the mount.
Medal Count breezes
Joining General a Rod on the plane to New York will be graded stakes winner Medal Count, who breezed 6 furlongs in 1:10.60 at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
While the enhanced security protocols announced by the New York Racing Association stated that all horses competing in the Belmont or the three $1 million undercard races must be on the Belmont Park grounds by noon Wednesday, they also said that "any exceptions will be at the discretion of the stewards."
Trainer Dale Romans and owner Spendthrift Farm announced Tuesday that Medal Count — eighth in the Kentucky Derby — would be Belmont-bound, and both connections were impressed as Medal Count notched fractions of :34.20 and :57.80 under exercise rider Faustino Aguilar on Saturday, galloping out 7 furlongs in 1:24 and a mile in 1:39.
"I knew we were meeting Tuesday at Cracker Barrel," Romans said of the decision between himself and Spendthrift owner B. Wayne Hughes to start in the Belmont. "I was thinking of all the reasons I wanted to run him in the Belmont. (Hughes) is one of the most intimidating men in the game. I walked in and sat down at the table with my stuff ready to go and he said, 'When are we shipping?' I said, 'Do you want to run?' He said, 'Do you?' I said, 'Yes' and he said 'run.' Then we had eggs and talked about economics."