ELMONT, N.Y. — Alan Sherman, assistant trainer for California Chrome, had a Hoosiers moment when he first walked into Belmont Park with his Triple Crown contender colt.
“Just the sheer size of it,” he said. “You walk out for the first time and see that size race track, and you’re like wow. It’s the biggest track in the country, a mile and a half. The horse looks like an ant on the other side of it. It can feel overwhelming.”
Against as big a backdrop as horse racing can offer, a group of self-proclaimed California little guys and their colt of humble origins will try to take one of sport’s most elusive prizes. It has been 36 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, the last horse to do it. His jockey, Steve Cauthen, will be in the stands watching, as will the other living Triple Crown riders, Seattle Slew’s Jean Cruguet and Secretariat’s Ron Turcotte.
California Chrome, the winner of six straight races, including the second-fastest Santa Anita Derby on record and impressive wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, has been installed as a 3-5 morning-line favorite for the Belmont. His mastery of the competition as a 3-year-old has made him something of a juggernaut, and the luster of a possible Triple Crown makes him an even bigger presence.
But that shouldn’t obscure the underdog nature of his story. Art Sherman — the 77-year-old trainer, the oldest ever to win the Kentucky Derby — who made the four-day trip to Louisville in a boxcar with Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, for whom he was an exercise rider. He toiled for decades in relative obscurity, first as a jockey then a trainer in California, before striking gold with a horse named Chrome.
Then there are the owners, one gregarious and confident, the other nearly reclusive. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin bought a mare together and, upon hearing a groom say that anyone who would breed to that mare had to be a “dumb ass,” immediately christened their new organization “Dumb Ass Partners.”
The first foal of the new operation? California Chrome.
“This is America’s horse,” Coburn said. “He’s showing people what the little guy can do.”
Victor Espinoza, California Chrome’s jockey, grew up not only in abject poverty in Mexico, but with perhaps an even greater impediment to greatness on the track. He was terrified of horses. He learned to ride on a donkey and moved to Mexico City, where, among other jobs, he drove a bus on streets judged by many as the most dangerous in the world.
Espinoza had a chance to win the Triple Crown aboard Bob Baffert’s War Emblem in 2002, but the horse broke badly and never threatened. Now he has a rare second chance.
Willie Delgado, California Chrome’s exercise rider, got involved because his brother, Alberto, was the colt’s regular jockey. Willie was training horses in Maryland, but when the call came, it took him little more than a day to decide to head west and hitch his wagon to this colt. Sherman wound up replacing Alberto Delgado with Espinoza, but Willie Delgado is on his back every morning.
“I’ve never worked for a set of people so nice like they are,” Delgado said. “I don’t know what it would mean for Art, but for me, just for him to win it, it’s a feeling that you can’t really describe. He’s 77 years old. ... I won’t know what to do if I see him and we’ve won it. I’ll probably cry my eyes out with him and Alan.”
And don’t forget the groom. Raul Rodriguez got a shout-out from Coburn after the Preakness win. “Raul sleeps with the horse more than he sleeps with his wife,” Coburn said.
Nothing California Chrome has done in training at Belmont during the past three weeks has dampened the enthusiasm of his connections. Delgado, who is on his back each day on the track, said that after an adjustment period he has been right at home.
“From Day 1 that we got here he’s looked beautiful,” Delgado said two days before the race. “For the first couple of days, I was lost, it’s so big. And he was confused. But by the third day he figured it out and was back to his normal routine in training. And every day he’s just gotten stronger and stronger to the point that this morning, he had me worried that I wouldn’t be able to get him to relax.
“But he’s part human, he knows. If he hears a camera, he slows down, let me pose. He’s a different horse than I was getting on at Churchill Downs. I think we’re going to make history.”
But if Chromies show up by the tens of thousands to watch him make history, 10 competitors in the race are trying to spoil it once again, as has happened with the 11 Belmont starters who had won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the past 36 years.
It doesn’t take much to derail a horse’s chances. A poor start. Jockey error. A health problem.
“If California Chrome was facing the field that Secretariat faced in the Belmont, we’d be getting ready to have a Triple Crown winner,” said Dale Romans, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Belmont starter Medal Count. “But he is going to have to work a lot more; this is a pretty good group of horses.
“He’s obviously the horse to beat. But you go back in history, there’s been lot of them in the last 36 years that looked like they were the horse to beat, but didn’t get it done.”
Affirmed beat only four competitors to win the Triple Crown in 1978. Secretariat the same. Seattle Slew in 1977 faced only an eight-horse field. The number of “new shooters” aiming at Triple Crown hopefuls has swelled in recent attempts, and that’s no different for California Chrome.
“You go through all 11 of the horses that tried and didn’t get it, and there’s a different reason they got beat with each one,” Romans said. “So you can’t duck the race. You’ve got to be in it, and try to win it.”
Billy Gowan, trainer of Ride On Curlin, one of only three horses who will attempt all three legs of the Triple Crown this year, said he’s given some thought to what it would feel like to spoil California Chrome’s history-making run.
“I can’t wait to get booed,” he said. “I’d love to get booed in New York. They asked me about being the spoiler. I said they spoiled my Derby and Preakness, I don’t have a problem with spoiling their Belmont.”
Belmont is a different kind of race track. Its sandy composition can make it slow, and its size makes it impossible to keep watered on a race day, especially one like today, with cloudless conditions and 82 degrees predicted.
Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby, and Wicked Strong, fourth in the Derby, are viewed as top competitors. Both skipped the Preakness and come to Belmont fresh, and Wicked Strong has posted some of the top workouts of all the competitors. Samraat and Medal Count also ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness, a winning Belmont strategy in recent years. Six winners in the past dozen years have followed that route.
Also a winning strategy — not running in the Derby or Preakness at all. Tonalist, whose last win was a sharp effort in the Peter Pan Stakes, fits that description.
General A Rod and Ride On Curlin both are looking to compete the Triple Crown circuit with California Chrome. In the last dozen years, only one horse to run in both the Derby and Preakness has won the Belmont.
The absence of early speed in the race means California Chrome could find himself in the lead on a track where he’s never raced. That’s a significant factor in the Belmont. No horse has ever won a Triple Crown without at least one start at Belmont to his credit.
None of that deters Art Sherman. “I’m confident in him,” he said. “He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. He doesn’t have to win the race to prove anything to me. But he loves to compete. You can see it in him.
“I said he’s a rock star and I’m his manager and he’s going to take me all the way. I still believe it.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Louisville TV station WDRB. Eric Crawford writes for WDRB.