Horse Racing / Sports

Chrome has a sport riding on him

BELMONT, N.Y. -- Racing's Triple Crown flame has been rekindled.

An unlikely horse named California Chrome, bred in California, owned by two men in their first-ever racing partnership, and trained by a 77-year-old former jockey who works out of a quarter horse track in Orange County, carries the torch now for a sport continually struggling to find its footing.

Saturday's Belmont Stakes offers $1.5 million in prize money. What it offers in intangibles to racing is priceless.

People who normally pay attention only to bats and balls and hockey pucks will want to know if California Chrome completes the Triple Crown here Saturday, on a racetrack notorious for being the spoiler of such moments.

They will tune in to the telecast or check their smartphones, ask their neighbors, read the news accounts. Racing, with mostly decreasing on-track attendance and media attention, will have the buzz it wants and needs -- ideally, for more than a day.

If the connections of California Chrome, which include owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn and trainer Art Sherman, have their way Saturday with the rest of an 11-horse Belmont field, Chrome probably will continue on to more racing, rather than head for the breeding barn.

That would mean at least another year of star quality and name recognition for racing, as well as a reason to attend, wager and maybe get hooked on the game.

That's what the Triple Crown is projected to mean. To the people who have brought California Chrome this far, it would also mean the happy end to an incredible story.

"This stuff is storybook," says Sherman, a man beloved in the game, whose stable is at Los Alamitos, and who has been around so long he was an exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps.

Swaps was one of three horses bred in California to win the Derby, until Chrome came along this year and made it four. No Cal-bred has won a Triple Crown.

As a matter of fact, no horse from anywhere has won one since Affirmed in 1978, when he became No. 11. With each elusive and emotion-crushing near miss, the Triple Crown achievement becomes an even more precious Holy Grail of the sport.

Sir Barton won the first in 1919. He was followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in '35, War Admiral in '37, Whirlaway in '41, Count Fleet in '43, Assault in '46, Citation in '48 and then three superstars in the '70s -- Secretariat ('73), Seattle Slew ('77) and Affirmed.

Since Affirmed, the pursuit has been a giant air balloon of anticipation and expectations that punctures come the Belmont Stakes. The race is run at 11/2 miles, longer than any of the entries are likely to race again. The track has long, sweeping turns and forever straightaways. Also, if you ask veteran horsemen, it might as well have a steady parade of black cats crossing it.

Since Affirmed, a dozen 3-year-olds have come to the Long Island track with a Derby and a Preakness tucked in their saddle and the corresponding visions of sugar plums. A dozen have left in sadness and with broken dreams.

Of that dozen, at least five lost in crushing and dramatic form and one, I'll Have Another, didn't even get to the starting gate.

In '79, Spectacular Bid looked the part and then allegedly stepped on a safety pin and ran a poor third.

In '97, Silver Charm, famed for his grit in never allowing a competitor he could see get past him at the wire, was beaten by one he didn't see. Chris McCarron took Touch Gold well off the rail and spoiled the Triple Crown.

In '98, Real Quiet got beat by a nose and in '99, with owners Bob and Beverly Lewis back for their second try in three years, Charismatic stepped badly near the finish, fractured an ankle (but lived) and ended up third.

In 2004, Smarty Jones battled for all he was worth down the stretch and came up just short to Birdstone.

Big Brown seemed like a sure thing in 2008 and then, inexplicably, stopped running on the turn for home and didn't finish.

And, of course, in 2012, I'll Have Another came up with a tendon injury the day before the race.

In the 59 years before Affirmed, eight horses failed their Triple Crown test and two more didn't even try. In the 36 years since Affirmed, 12 haven't gotten it done.

California Chrome was bred by Martin and Coburn for the $8,000 cost to purchase a broodmare and a $2,000 stallion fee. In racing, that is a pittance. The odds of it leading to a Triple Crown try are beyond huge.

California Chrome has won six consecutive races, all under the ride of veteran jockey Victor Espinoza. He has won those by a total of 271/2 lengths.

After Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby, Martin and Coburn were offered $6 million for 51 percent of the horse. The odds of anybody turning down a $5,990,000 return on their investment are beyond huge.

"We didn't just say no," Coburn said. "We said hell no."

California Chrome will break from the No. 2 post position. His morning line odds are 3-5, which means for every $5 bet, you make $3 on top of it. There are only two others in the field of 11 with single-digit morning lines odds -- Wicked Strong at 6-1 and Tonalist at 8-1.

Because of the Belmont's history as a horror chamber for Triple Crown aspirants, the odds of Wicked Strong or Tonalist spoiling the party Saturday are not beyond huge.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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