Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

California Chrome takes on history in Belmont Stakes

ELMONT, N.Y. — Standing along the rail up against the home stretch of the Belmont Park race track, you look over an enormous plot of dirt and sadly realize that here — right here in front of you — is where dreams go to die.

A dozen horses have won the first two legs of horse racing's elusive Triple Crown over the past 36 years. None has won the third leg here at Belmont. One didn't even try. And it's because of right here, the home stretch of a torturous mile-and-a-half track that zaps the resources of even a special thoroughbred and turns him into just another footnote in the annals of horse racing.

And it's right here where we will find out which way California Chrome will run in today's Belmont Stakes — either straight into history or onto the list of wannabes who were good but not nearly good enough to be great.

"Is California Chrome a great horse?" said NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who won the Belmont twice. "Right now, he's a good horse. He's not a great horse yet."

California Chrome will become great only if he can win here today and complete the Triple Crown. The betting odds say he will, but that's because fans, when they are this close to such a rare feat, wager with their hearts instead of their heads. Everyone wants to see a Triple Crown won, right?

But history says California Chrome won't win it. The longest race track in North America seems built specifically to strike down yet another hopeful, particularly one who faced a weak field at the Preakness and avoided any trouble or traffic in that race and the Triple Crown's first leg, the Kentucky Derby.

In fact, some are surprised we're even talking about California Chrome and the Triple Crown.

"Before the Derby, I had talked myself off of him," NBC analyst and former jockey Donna Brothers said. "I thought he was just okay. … But when he won the Derby, I thought he could win the second leg but no way can he win Belmont. But after all the challenges he withstood at (the Preakness) to win the second leg, I was like, 'Hmm, I don't know. Maybe he can win the third leg.' "

And that's what is so enigmatic about California Chrome. He doesn't seem like a great horse, but he keeps doing great things. Ask anybody about him and you get shrugs, twisted faces and lots of lines like, "Yeah, well, hmm, uh, I don't know."

Deep down, most don't expect him to win today. Then again, no one is betting against it, either.

You see, California Chrome doesn't always look the part of a great horse, like, say, the last two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

"You ever notice how some people who are really fit … go to the gym and they come out and they just seem bigger than when they went in? Their muscles get pumped up?" Brothers said. "This horse is like that. … This horse goes out on the race track, and I don't know if it's endorphins or adrenaline or whatever it is, but all of a sudden he's taller, he's wider, he carries himself differently. He's a different horse when you see him out on the track at a race."

He also has something that only his jockey, Victor Espinoza, can see. Espinoza says that during a race, California Chrome flicks back his ears, waiting for instructions from his jockey like a quarterback listens to his head coach.

"Here you have a team player," Brothers said. "Victor is not having to say, 'Oh, I hope he is not going to try to do too much too soon.' California Chrome is like a well-trained puppy dog going, 'Now what? Now what? Do you need me yet?' "

At Kentucky and the Preakness, Espinoza rode nearly perfect races, pushing his horse at just the right time.

But the problem at the Belmont is never knowing when to push the pedal to the metal, so to speak. A rider simply doesn't know how the horse is going to react when he suddenly finds himself running farther than he ever has before.

"The mile and a half changes everything," Bailey said. "No one knows until it unfolds. And I mean no one, not even the jockey."

At some point after the final turn, Espinoza will ask California Chrome to make his last mad dash for glory and history.

"That's when Victor will ask the question," Bailey said. "And then we will know. And you know what? Victor will know only shortly before we all know."

Here's hoping a Triple Crown win happens. Horse racing needs it, if for nothing else to prove it can still be done and winning the Triple Crown doesn't become an unrealistic, and therefore forgotten, achievement, like hitting .400 in baseball or winning the grand slam in golf.

"It would be nice," Brothers said. "If it goes like 40 years and then 45 years, the younger people are going to be like, 'These old people are crazy to ever think this could happen again. They must be smoking their socks.' I would like to see it."

We could see it today. We should know something in the home stretch, that place where dreams go to die.

Maybe this time, for the first time in 36 years, it's where a dream will come true.

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