When California Chrome runs for the Triple Crown on Saturday at Belmont Park, Penny Chenery will be in the overflow crowd. Pardon her for looking into the past.
Four decades ago, Chenery stood at the Elmont, N.Y., track, cheering with arms waving ecstatically as her superstar Secretariat crushed the field by 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes.
His victory in 1973 cemented a Triple Crown for Chenery, the first in a quarter-century. California Chrome now gets his chance at history in the 146th running of the last and longest jewel in thoroughbred racing's premier series.
"I wasn't going to go, because I'm getting up in years," said Chenery, 92, who lives in Boulder, Colo., near her four children. "But if California Chrome could win the Triple Crown, I want to be there."
No horse has won the Triple Crown in 36 years. California Chrome would be the first California-bred and 12th 3-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont. He is the odds-on favorite with wins in his past six starts by 27½ lengths.
"You like to see a great horse win it, and I think California Chrome has got the potential to be a great horse," said Patrice Wolfson, co-owner of Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown champion in 1978. "He has that wonderful quality of versatility — easy to rate, easy to ride, a wonderful acceleration."
California Chrome faces nine challengers, likely including Kid Cruz, who finished eighth in the Preakness for owners Steven Brandt and Rick Boylan of St. Pete Beach.
"We would like to win the race," Brandt said. "But if we don't win it, we'd be supporting California Chrome's people.
"I wasn't the biggest California Chrome fan entering the Preakness. He is a great horse, and we feel like part of the family for California Chrome folks. It's just great being in the starting gate with a horse that could potentially be the next Triple Crown winner."
Since 1979, California Chrome is the 13th horse to enter the Belmont with victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The previous ones failed to capture the demanding 1½-mile race, including I'll Have Another, who was retired on the eve of the 2012 Belmont with a leg injury.
"I watched all the races where they failed," California Chrome's 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman said. "I don't know if they just got flat outrun or just tired from the Triple Crown races. I know my horse is coming into this race great. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Hollywood couldn't have produced a more unique script for California Chrome and his followers, known as Chromies. The chestnut colt was sired by the $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit, and a few individuals mocked blue-collar owners Steve Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., and Perry Martin of Yuba City, Calif., for spending $8,000 on his dam, Love the Chase.
"If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, he will be worth an unimaginable amount of money," said Dr. Jim Hill, co-owner of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
California Chrome has some Seattle Slew pedigree through A.P. Indy and Pulpit.
This will be the second Triple Crown bid for jockey Victor Espinoza, 42, who finished eighth aboard War Emblem in the 2002 Belmont. War Emblem stumbled at the break and was upset by 70-1 shot Sarava. Espinoza is 6-for-6 on California Chrome.
"I think it's going to wind up being a riders' race," said Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew. "The rider decides what he wants to do when the time comes — whether it's early or late — and go from there. The riders that are successful at Belmont tell me that the natural instinct is to move about one-eighth mile too soon. … The people that do look like winners at the one-eighth pole don't make it.
"California Chrome has proven already that he's the dominant horse in the 3-year-old ranks today."
Espinoza has the support of older brother Jose, a jockey who suffered a career-ending riding injury on Aug. 17 at Saratoga Race Course in New York, six months after winning the Grade III Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar.
"Victor has been there before and is very well connected with California Chrome," said Steve Cauthen, who at age 18 won the Triple Crown with Affirmed. "They've got a great relationship. It reminds me a lot of Affirmed — (Espinoza) has got a lot of options (with California Chrome). The question is if he can really stay 1½ miles. He looks like a freak; he can probably do things that are beyond his breeding. I'm looking for him to pull it off, and I like the way Art Sherman is training him."
Chenery said a Triple Crown would change the lives of California Chrome's connections. "It's a question of how much you want to do with it," she said. "I welcomed it. I love people. I love the attention. My trainer (Lucien Laurin) and I both felt there was an obligation to accommodate the fans and the uninformed questions from the media.
"But these gentlemen are the kind that get up and go to work every day, and I don't think that they are about to do anything different.
"It's a wonderful story. God bless them and whatever they decide. They've had dignity and charm, and I love the horse."