NEW YORK — California Chrome is 1 1/2 miles away from ending the longest drought in racing history — 36 years without a Triple Crown winner.
Eleven horses as good or better than him have tried to complete the sweep in the Belmont Stakes and failed since 1978. The chestnut colt with the modest pedigree and self-described “dumb ass” owners can either make history Saturday or become just another near-miss.
“I’ve watched the other horses where they failed,” California Chrome trainer Art Sherman said. “I don’t know if they just got flat outrun or got tired from the Triple Crown races.”
California Chrome and 10 rivals will run the longest race of their lives on Belmont Park’s deep, sandy track with its sweeping turns. No other Triple Crown winner faced more than seven rivals.
“I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race,” said Sherman, who at 77 is overseeing the best horse of his career. “I’m getting pumped up.”
California Chrome completed his final run-through on Friday, galloping two miles around the Belmont oval after visiting the paddock where he will be saddled on race day. He stood quietly in stall No. 2 before walking through the tunnel toward the track, pausing several times for photographers. His ears pricked at the sound of clicking cameras.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will jog again early Saturday, about 13 hours before he tries to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown.
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, whose horses spoiled Triple Crown bids in 2004 and 2008, said that how California Chrome handles the extra quarter-mile in the Belmont will be crucial to his chances.
“Smarty Jones was in front going a mile and a quarter, and that last quarter of a mile got him,” Zito said. “It’s a different race. It’s just longer.”
If there’s one worry Sherman has, it’s whether his chestnut colt with four white socks can run that far after a tough campaign of three big races in five weeks.
“One thing I always wonder about is stamina,” Sherman said. “It could be walking pace the first part of it. All of a sudden, the guys kicking in the last part don’t get there.”
Ultimately, Sherman will leave the decision-making to Victor Espinoza, who saw his bid for a Triple Crown aboard War Emblem end in defeat at the 2002 Belmont. He and California Chrome have teamed to win six consecutive races.
“He gets him to relax. I never give him any instructions,” Sherman said. “I’m sure there will be different tactics, but that’s OK as long as Victor can have a spot where he can run the last quarter of a mile.”
Racing has been aching for another Triple Crown champion since Affirmed became the third horse in the 1970s to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. California Chrome and his team would be welcome members of the exclusive club if the colt can pull it off in front of a crowd expected to top 100,000.
“It has to be a super horse to win that,” Espinoza said.
Owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin have shown that a couple of working stiffs who spent $8,000 on a mare they bred to a stallion for $2,500 can trump the sport’s blue blood owners and breeders. They were called “dumb asses” by a trainer for buying a mare who gave no indication that she could produce a standout offspring who could run fast.
“This horse has given everybody else out there the incentive to say, ‘You know what, we can do it, too,’” Coburn said. “This horse is letting America know that the little guy can win.”
Coburn — who favors a silver belt buckle as big as his cream-colored cowboy hat — and Martin — who likes keeping a low-profile — showed their sense of humor in naming their racing operation Dumb Ass Partners and sticking a donkey on their silks.
Martin was the one who emailed Sherman with an audacious plan to get California Chrome to the Kentucky Derby — before he had even run a race. Now the colt is one win away from racing immortality.
“You just like to see a great horse win it and I think he’s got the potential to be a great horse,” said Patrice Wolfson, whose late husband owned Affirmed, “so we’ll be cheering for him.”
As much as Sherman wants California Chrome to win — the trainer will wear the same lucky suit he did at the Derby and Preakness — he can accept a loss, too.
“He doesn’t have to win another race as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to be around a horse that has so much class and is 100 percent healthy.”