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California Chrome Triple Crown would be boon for sport

Published Jun. 1, 2014

Even if California Chrome, the horse of the moment, wins going away, it isn't as if Mr. Ed is going to return to network television.

Even if he dominates the distance and the track and a field of fresh competitors, it isn't as if businessmen will show up for work next week wearing spurs that jingle jangle jingle.

Even if he establishes himself as the horse of his era, it isn't as if his sport will replace the NFL on Sunday afternoons.

There is only so much a horse can do, after all. And still, the world pulls for California Chrome, the latest hope, to win the Triple Crown.

The sport needs this. It needs the energy. It needs the interest. It has faded so far, and so fast, that it could use the validation that comes with greatness. It needs the buzz that comes with a new legend.

All of that, as well as jockey Victor Espinoza, will be riding on California Chrome Saturday.

It doesn't matter the sport. Give us something special, and we will watch. Give us magic, and we will take a rooting interest. Give us history, and we will tune in.

It is true that horse racing has been in decline for years. Attendance is down. Wagering is down, influenced by the ease of Internet gambling. Chatter is down. Racing — except for those who love it — has taken on the feel of a black-and-white movie. To many, it feels dated.

The Sport of Kings? Yes, but how many kings are there these days?

For a while, at least, California Chrome could change all of that. In just a mile and a half, horse racing could be cool again.

You can feel the racing community as it pulls for California Chrome. Patrice Wolfson, who owned Affirmed, said last week that she is finally ready to give up the title of having the last Triple Crown winner.

"He's just … he's unique,'' Wolfson said about California Chrome on a conference call this week. "He just has something special. I think to win the Triple Crown, we want to see a horse that has that excitement, and he has that.''

Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat, agrees: "I'd love to see the horse win. I really love the horse. I love the way he's training, and I think he's going to win the Triple Crown.''

Average fans? They're pulling for him, too. Remember that brief controversy about the nasal breathing strip that California Chrome wears? Did anyone argue he shouldn't be allowed to wear it? Heck, he could tattoo images of the great horses on his legs, and we'd like that, too.

As long as he wins.

Once, the Triple Crown seemed like an easy thing to ask. You pointed the fastest horse toward the finish line, and everyone else played chase. There were three Triple Crown winners in the '70s, four in the '40s, three in the '30s. In those days, it seemed there were great horses all the time.

But it has been a 36-year wait since Affirmed won horse racing's last Triple Crown in 1978. Since then, there have been enough horses with enough false hope to start a herd.

Twelve times since — an average of once every three years — a horse has won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Eleven times the horse has not won the Belmont (and the other didn't run).

It's odd. Horses are still fast. No one has matched Secretariat's Derby time of 1:59:40, but three of the past four Triple Crown contenders broke the 2:02 barrier in the 1¼-mile Derby. All four broke the 1:56 barrier in the 13/16-mile Preakness. But in the grueling Belmont, they all lacked something.

Which leads us to California Chrome and the question whether there is something different about this horse.

Why is it so hard for a horse to win the Triple Crown? Start with this: It's a difficult task. Very good horses don't pull it off.

You are talking about three races, and three tracks, and three distances. You are talking about fields of different sizes and different skills. You are talking about the strategies of jockeys. You are talking about injures. You are talking about dumb luck.

In recent years, you are also talking about how some trainers leapfrog the Preakness and aim at the Belmont early on. This year, the No. 2, No. 3, No, 4, No. 5 and No. 6 finishers in the Derby all skipped the Preakness. That's a lot of horses trying to head 'em off at the Belmont.

In other words, there are a lot of things that can get in the way of greatness. And so it has become fashionable for some to proclaim that there will never been another Triple Crown winner. So far, they're riding a long streak of being right.

On the other hand, never is a long time.

Look, we might have had a Triple Crown winner long ago if I'll Have Another wasn't scratched from the Belmont in 2012 because of a dodgy tendon. Spectacular Bid might have done it in 1979 if he hadn't stepped on a safety pin with his left front hoof, which may have led to him getting caught down the stretch.

War Emblem might have done it in 2002 if he hadn't stumbled out of the gate. Charismatic might have won in 1999 if he hadn't stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth. Real Quiet might have won if he had been 4 inches faster in 1998.

And so it goes. We have come close to a Triple Crown so many times. Sooner or later, a horse is bound to be good enough to pull it off.

Maybe it happens this year.

Maybe California Chrome brings it home. Maybe it's a horse good enough to be mentioned with Secretariat and Seattle Slew, with Count Fleet and Whirlaway.

Maybe, it's a horse for all time.

Gary Shelton can be reached at shelton@tampabay.com.

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