Update, 10:35 pm Saturday: California Chrome failed to win the Triple Crown, finishing fourth to a horse named Tonalist. California Chrome suffered a gash to his right front foot, possibly at the start of the race, which may have impacted his effort. His trainer says the injury is not serious. Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn told NBC Sports in an emotional post race interview that he doesn’t think any horse will win the Triple Crown in his lifetime. Coburn said it was cowardly for some owners to have their horses to sit out one of the Triple Crown races, in order send a fresh horse to try and take down his horse which competed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Tonalist, the winner, did not race in the Derby or Preakness. The heavy favorite was running his third tough race in a 5-week span. Coburn’s comments were debated by fans on Twitter. It has been 36 years since there was a Triple Crown winner. The last horse to do so was Affirmed in 1978.
Original post (Friday morning):
My non horse-racing friends are starting to check in now that the Belmont Stakes is near. They want to know if California Chrome can really win the Triple Crown. Yes, I say, with complete conviction. How do I know this? It’s not because the flashy chestnut from the Central Valley has drawn a good post position (2) for the race, or that he’s training like monster, or that he’s put on weight, even after a grueling series of races. It’s not because Chrome’s breeding indicates he’s got just as good a chance as the next horse of staying the distance. And I’m not blindly rooting for him because of how uplifting it would be to see a horse from humble beginnings win The Sport of Kings coveted Triple Crown. Nope.
Chrome will win because of Lady Luck. Chrome’s team knows the importance of luck. All race trackers do. They know you can have the fastest horse in the race, the cleverest rider, winningest trainer, and hail from the richest bluegrass barn in Kentucky … but luck is the factor you can’t control, at any level of the game.
This is probably why so many who make a living on the track are superstitious. I learned about this while working on the backstretch at Arlington Park outside of Chicago. Walking horses around in the early morning after they’ve exercised, you start to see what folks do to conjure luck. Avoid black cats, sure. But some folks refuse to eat peanuts in the barn. Others nail horseshoes right-side-up in doorways so their luck doesn’t run out. It’s institutional: Some tracks skip the number 13 when numbering their barns. No horse whatsoever will be found in barn 13 at one of the country’s most venerable tracks — Kentucky’s Keeneland. There wasn’t one at Arlington Park when I worked there either — I actually went looking for it, to make sure. (One trainer takes this to extremes.)
Chrome’s lucky talisman for the Triple Crown is a misspelled saddle blanket.
How do you spell California Chrome? Well, in Kentucky, somehow it got spelled “Califorina Chrome” on his saddle blanket, and track officials presented that to the horse when he got to town. Some folks felt it was a slight, maybe done on purpose. Racing writers across the country smirked at Churchill Downs’ error. It was embarrassing. Then Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness, did the same thing — on purpose.
Why? Because anything that’s worked to get California Chrome to the winners’ circle thus far should not be messed with. Chrome won the Kentucky Derby after getting that misspelled saddle blanket. Now it’s part of the winning equation.
As soon as Chrome arrived in the Big Apple to prep for the third leg of the Triple Crown, naturally, Belmont officials presented his owners with another misspelled saddle blanket. If — ahem — when he wins, Team Chrome promises to autograph it and auction it for charity.
Then there’s that nasal strip that caused a brief commotion two weeks ago. If New York racing officials didn’t let Chrome wear the nasal strip, well then, said trainer Art Sherman, the owners might withdraw from the race.
“Perry Martin, he might not run if they say you can’t run with a nasal strip,” Sherman said, referring to California Chrome’s co-owner. “He’s very funny about things like that.”
Nasal strips are not performance enhancing, and the horse trains without it. So, you’d think his connections wouldn’t go to the mat if he couldn’t wear it. Thankfully, we never had to find out: Racing officials quickly changed that rule.
The luck of the possum?
Then there is the possum story. A possum scared a lot of people on the track one misty morning at Belmont. The marsupial started ambling across the race track while Chrome was galloping down the stretch. Most high-strung thoroughbreds would spook and possibly injure themselves. Everyone watching held their breath. The possum spooked the horse next to Chrome. But you can see in the video from Blood-Horse, Chrome remains oblivious to the possum. And I consider that very lucky, though assistant trainer Alan Sherman, says, heck, they have coyotes at Los Alamitos, so Chrome wasn’t going to be bothered by a little old possum, anyway.
Even if you discount luck, there is good reason to believe California Chrome will be the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years — and the first ever California-bred to win it. The telltale sign is that he’s putting on weight, and he’s training like he wants more work. He’s run a lot of hard races this year. Even good horses might get worn out, become less interested in racing and go off their feed. Not Chrome. He’s pulling his rider around the track in the mornings and still loving to run. Another video from Blood-Horse showed his latest workout, which had onlookers raving about him — even some East Coast handicappers who pooh-poohed him before both the Derby and Preakness.
So a lot is going Team Chrome’s way. And a lot of us want a little piece of that luck. A crowd of 100,000 is expected to show up at Belmont to see him run Saturday. The horse is happy and his humans remain almost naively happy. Every interview is upbeat, every comment about their horse a positive one. They just stand back and admire him, enjoying the ride. They know it’s all up to Chrome — and maybe that saddle blanket.