After California Chrome’s trouble-free trips in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the chestnut colt with four white feet will be running in the Belmont Stakes with a bull’s-eye on his back.
Trainer Art Sherman believes California Chrome can become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 when he races at Belmont Stakes. Win and the horse becomes racing’s next superstar.
“I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race,” said Sherman, who at 77 is training the best horse of his long career. “I’m getting pumped up.”
So are those aiming to knock off the champ and prevent history from being made on June 7. At least nine horses are expected for the 11⁄2-mile Belmont. The field will be set Wednesday when entries are due and post positions drawn. The race appears to be a mix of returning rivals and newcomers to the Triple Crown trail.
Ride On Curlin will test California Chrome again. The colt finished second, beaten 11⁄2 lengths in the Preakness. He and California Chrome will be the only horses to run all three legs of the Triple Crown this year.
“I’ve gotten closer to California Chrome more than anybody else has this year,” Ride On Curlin’s trainer Billy Gowan said, “and with a little added distance maybe we can take him.”
The Belmont is the longest of the three races. The distance can tire out a horse that has run on the compressed five-week schedule of the Triple Crown. No 3-year-old has run that far in its life, and few will be asked to ever do it again.
“Some horses absolutely do not want to go a mile and a half,” Gowan said, “and some horses thrive on it.”
Commanding Curve, second in the Derby to California Chrome, is rested and ready to face his rival again after skipping the Preakness. His trainer, Dallas Stewart, wouldn’t mind playing spoiler.
“There are a handful of horses that are capable of beating him even on his best day at this distance,” he said. “The horse has really had two perfect trips. It may or may not happen on Belmont day. If he gets in a little bit of trouble, how is he going to handle it?”
Sherman draws his confidence from seeing California Chrome’s progression during his current six-race winning streak. The trainer has been back at his Southern California base since the Preakness.
He has been watching videos of his colt’s daily gallops and talking with his son and assistant trainer Alan, who is at Belmont with the horse.
“I can’t believe a horse bounces back like he does,” the elder Sherman said. “He looks alert. He’s doing great at training.”
California Chrome has bulked up by 40 to 50 pounds in the last two weeks.
“He’s a different horse now, he’s maturing, he’s very confident in himself,” Sherman said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here, let’s see you outrun me.’ He doesn’t want any horse passing him.”
Two other Derby horses are expected to run in the Belmont after bypassing the Preakness: Wicked Strong, fourth at Churchill Downs, and Samraat, who was fifth.
“One of our horses will have to run the race of their life and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker,” said Jimmy Jerkens, who trains Wicked Strong.
The expected newcomers to the Triple Crown trail are Commissioner, Matterhorn, Matuszak and Tonalist, who won the Peter Pan at Belmont on a sloppy track. Commissioner was second in that race.
Only 11 horses have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. There have been 11 Triple tries since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, the most recent being Big Brown in 2008. He won the first two legs, then was eased by jockey Kent Desormeaux and didn’t finish.
I’ll Have Another won the first two legs in 2012, but was scratched on Belmont eve with a tendon injury. Doug O’Neill, a California-based trainer, is rooting for California Chrome and Sherman to achieve what his camp did not.
“What a wonderful horse he is,” O’Neill said. “He hasn’t missed a beat.”
After winning the first two legs to set up a Triple try, California Chrome cleared another hurdle when New York racing officials ruled he could wear his favored nasal strips in the Belmont, as can any other horse in the race.
“It opens up his air passage and gives him that little extra oomph that he needs, especially going a mile and a half,” Sherman said. “Any time you can have a good air passage that means a lot for these thoroughbreds.”
Another factor helping California Chrome is having veteran Victor Espinoza as his pilot. He was aboard during War Emblem’s failed Triple Crown bid in 2002, when the horse stumbled out of the gate and failed to fire in the Belmont.
“He’s a pretty intelligent rider,” Sherman said. “I never give him instructions.”
Before Affirmed swept the Triple Crown, 25 years had passed between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. So tough is the task that the current 36-year gap is the longest ever.
“I think they’re going to see a champion,” Sherman said.