BALTIMORE — Art Sherman didn't back away from the question that will hang over him the next three weeks. He did follow it up by dropping a dollop of controversy into the march toward history he and the colt he trains have so smoothly navigated so far.
"I do," the 77-year-old trainer said when asked Sunday whether he thought Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victor California Chrome could become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. "I have a good feeling about it. I'm really confident going into this race."
The race in question is the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the third leg in Thoroughbred racing's Holy Grail of classics. The morning after California Chrome turned back nine challengers to win the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes by 11/2 lengths over Ride On Curlin, confidence was brimming from all those associated with Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's colt.
Having now won six consecutive starts by a combined margin of 271/2 lengths, California Chrome will carry equal, if not more, hype than Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008) brought to Belmont in their failed bids to become the first since Affirmed in 1978 and only 12th ever to sweep the three races.
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The son of Lucky Pulpit will also be saddled with a new round of speculation regarding his potential performance in New York. Sunday Sherman was initially informed by reporters from Daily Racing Form that the use of Flair Nasal strips — the equine equivalent of a Breathe Right strip — is not permitted in Thoroughbred racing in New York.
California Chrome has been unbeaten since first wearing the nasal strips, which have been common in racing throughout most jurisdictions for more than a decade. Upon learning of the rule, Sherman said that Martin in particular might hesitate at going forward in the Belmont.
"I'm very serious that Perry Martin might say, 'Listen, if I can't put that on a horse I'm not sending him over there,'" Sherman said. "He might be superstitious about it. He's very funny about things like that.
"(The use of the strip) is not going to move him up 5-6 lengths ... but you hate changing things. It might be an issue. I'm not saying it will be, but I know the owners will be upset."
The use of nasal strips in New York first came to a head in 2012 when the connections of that year's Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another, were told the colt could not wear one fin the Belmont Stakes. Sadly, the issue became moot when I'll Have Another was injured and retired one day before the Belmont.
Actually, there is no ban on nasal strips in New York, but their use must be approved by the stewards. The New York State Gaming Commission said in a statement Sunday that neither the organization nor the stewards have received a request to use nasal strips in the Belmont Stakes.
"If a request to use nasal strips is made, a decision on whether to permit or not will be evaluated and determined by the stewards," the statement said, further citing NYSGC TB Rule 4033.8: "Only equipment specifically approved by stewards shall be worn or carried by jockey or horse in a race."
Later Sunday evening, the Santa Anita Park publicity staff reported via Twitter that a formal request has in fact already been submitted by Sherman to wear a nasal strip in the Belmont.
Nasalgate comes on the heels off Throatgate being dispelled during California Chrome's Preakness victory. Days before his latest triumph, it was revealed the chestnut colt had a tiny blister in his throat, though his connections repeatedly insisted it was not a problem.
Like many statements made in his favor, California Chrome proved them right when he began his charge from third midway down the backside in the Preakness while facing pressure to his outside from Social Inclusion.
The fact he could sustain his bid from the half-mile mark through the lane, opening up by 3 lengths at one point in the stretch, further shows Sherman this is a horse with uncommon stamina and acceleration.
"They took some pretty good shots at him," Sherman said. "He was in a longer drive than I had ever seen him. I talked to (jockey) Victor (Espinoza) and he said he had to ask him from about the half-mile pole to stay in there. Usually he just runs the last quarter of a mile so, that impressed me a lot."
California Chrome's tractability makes him a perfect fit to handle the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes where, contrary to popular belief, horses closer to the pace usually perform the best in the marathon race.
But his potential crown will not be handed to him. Ride On Curlin, who was dead game to finish second in the Preakness, is among the 10 other horses on the list of probables expected to challenge California Chrome in the Belmont.
"I don't think distance matters," said Billy Gowan, trainer of Ride On Curlin. "Maybe it will help him but 'Chrome don't like stopping. My horse is one tough horse, he really is but ... like I said, Chrome don't quit."
Third-place finisher Social Inclusion is also being considered, while co-owner Jack Wolf said he would like to run fourth-place finisher General a Rod in the final leg as well.
Danza, third in the Kentucky Derby, and that race's fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Wicked Strong and Samraat, are likely to enter the Belmont.
"They got all those guys waiting for us to come back there, those New York boys will be fired up," said Sherman, who said California Chrome would be shipped to New York on Tuesday. "I see a lot of horses who have a struggling time there (at Belmont). But I'm not worried about it to be honest. We made it this far, let's go for it."