History isn’t in California Chrome’s corner as he seeks final jewel of Triple Crown

Written By BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter Posted: 07/08/2014, 06:15am

ELMONT, N.Y. — California Chrome already is a giant, in reputation and in stature.

One Belmont Stakes victory Saturday from capturing the first Triple Crown since 1978, the horse has gained 30 pounds of muscle — having “not missed an oat,” assistant trainer Alan Sherman said — during his magical five-week run.

On North America’s longest dirt track, though, he seems so small.

“Your horse looks like an ant on the other end of the track,” Sherman said.

California Chrome “acclimated better than I did” this week, Sherman said, to the 1 ½-mile track ­locals call “The Big Sandy:”

Still, there’s plenty of room — 12 agonizing furlongs — for things to go wrong Saturday.

Lord knows they have before.

Since Affirmed won the last ­Triple Crown 36 years ago, 12 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

None has won the Belmont.

Co-owned by Chicago natives Perry and Denise Martin, ­California Chrome avoided the fate of the most recent contender simply by making it through Friday’s workout.

In 2012, I’ll Have Another was scratched the afternoon before the race with left leg tendinitis.

Sherman said California Chrome was “outstanding” during a 2-mile gallop at 6 am. Friday.

“Nothing seems to bother him,” Sherman said of the horse. “He’s pretty cool.”

He’ll have to be, if he wants to gallop past the ghosts of the last dozen Triple Crown contenders.

It was at the finish line here where, in 1998, Real ­Quiet lost by a nose, the nearest miss in sports’ most ­elusive title chase.

A furlong from the finish, Smarty Jones — a horse as beloved as California Chrome — was caught from behind, finishing second in 2004. The winning owner apologized for costing him history.

Misfortune has stalked ­every turn.

In 1999, Charismatic broke his left foreleg down the stretch; after he finished third, his jockey jumped off him and held his leg until doctors arrived.

Twenty years earlier, Spectacular Bid finished third after, his trainer said, a safety pin jammed one inch deep into his hoof the morning of the race.

In 2002, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate — almost falling to his knees — and finished eighth.

His jockey that day, Victor Espinoza, will ride California Chrome in the $1.5 million Grade I race.

“I don’t think about the past,” Espinoza said curtly. “I think about the future.”

And that looks bright for California Chrome, a 3-5 morning-line favorite despite 36 years of warning ­otherwise.

With their horse starting from the No. 2 post position, California Chrome’s handlers would prefer he let another runner take an early lead, giving him someone to stalk.

Sherman said there’s “not a lot of speed in the race, on paper.”

As the fastest horse in the race, California Chrome — who will wear a nasal strip, as did his the first two legs of the Triple Crown — must avoid being boxed in by ­slower goers.

“He’s got a target on his back,” Sherman said. “They’ll be going after him. If Chrome moves, they’re gonna move right with him. Nothing’s going to come easy.”

California Chrome’s camp is most concerned with two opponents: Ride On Curlin (12-1), who was the runner-up in the Preakness, and ­new shooter Tonalist (8-1), who won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

Wicked Strong (6-1), whose trainer is based at ­Belmont, finished fourth at the Kentucky Derby, but skipped the Preakness to rest.

None, though, has the opportunity of California Chrome, who can make — and buck — history.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” co-owner Steve Coburn said. “It’s been a long journey.”

The longest leg begins at post time.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley

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