NEW YORK — So far, so smooth for California Chrome. It has been fairly clear sailing for the chestnut colt through the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
He parlayed trouble-free trips in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness into victories, setting the stage for a possible Triple Crown sweep on June 7 in the Belmont Stakes.
The 1 1/2-mile Belmont, known as “The Test of a Champion,” is the longest of the three races in the series. And, in many respects, the cruelest.
Only 11 horses have swept the three races, Affirmed the most recent in 1978. Since then, 12 horses have captured the first two legs without completing the equine hat trick.
There is a quiet confidence in the California Chrome camp that they possess the long-awaited Triple Crown champion.
“The horse is doing great, I couldn’t ask anything more from him,” said Alan Sherman, the assistant trainer to his father Art Sherman. “I’m looking forward to the race. I think if he runs his race, he’s going to be pretty solid.”
By all outward indications, they have every reason to feel that way. Since the Preakness, California Chrome has not missed a beat. His one workout was terrific, the morning gallops strong and steady, the appetite hardy.
That continues the pattern for California Chrome throughout this Triple Crown attempt.
Of course, there were some minor glitches, like a mild throat irritation that produced a couple of coughs before the Preakness. And, the brief flap surrounding California Chrome’s nasal strips. The Belmont Park stewards quickly reversed their ban on the strips, ending the threat California Chrome would skip the Belmont.
Aside from that, it’s been all business.
The day before the Belmont was a typical morning for California Chrome, another day without a hitch. He visited the paddock, getting acquainted with the area and the stall where he will be saddled. Then, it was out to the track for a leg-stretching gallop.
“He’s training outstanding,” Sherman said. “Nothing seems to bother him too much. He’s pretty cool.”
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, an objective observer, echoes that sentiment. “That horse is as smooth as can be, when he works, when he gallops,” Zito said. A two-time Belmont winner, Zito does not have a horse in this year’s race.
California Chrome and his 10 rivals will run the longest race of their lives, one lap around Big Sandy, Belmont’s deep and often tiring track.
“I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race,” said Art Sherman, who at 77 is overseeing the best horse of his career. “I’m getting pumped up.”
The Belmont could be a redemptive moment for jockey Victor Espinoza, who saw his bid for a Triple Crown aboard War Emblem end in defeat at the 2002 Belmont after a stumble at the start.
“It has to be a super horse to win that,” Espinoza said.
Weather should not be a factor. The forecast calls for sunny skies with temperatures in the low 80s at the expected 6:52 p.m. Eastern post time. A crowd of around 100,000 is expected to pack the expansive grandstand for a chance to see history, and an end to the longest Triple Crown drought.
There are 10 other horses in the race itching to play spoiler.
Commanding Curve, for one, will be looking to close the gap. He rallied from 18th in the Kentucky Derby for finish second, only 1 3/4-length behind California Chrome.
Commanding Curve skipped the Preakness, getting an additional two weeks of rest for the Belmont. He is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a partnership headed by Terry Finley.
While everyone wants to win, deep down most wouldn’t be too upset seeing a Triple Crown winner. “Sure, we’d love to win,” Finley said. “We’re like most of the other connections, we want California Chrome to win if we don’t.”