ELMONT, N.Y. -- “Big Sandy” can bury Derby heroes.
It’s a reputation earned through decades of frustration. Deep and tiring, Belmont Park’s main track – nicknamed for its heavy concentration of sand – challenges a horse’s fitness and heart. Up close, the texture looks like dark gray sea salt, crumbly with distinct grains.
With sweeping turns, Belmont’s 11/2-mile oval resembles a wide and circular beach, pockmarked by hooves. As if running through dunes, many horses sink as they struggle to gain traction. An off-balance break from the gate can bring them to their knees.
Used to fast and bouncy surfaces back home, most West Coast invaders can’t stand Big Sandy. But not California Chrome.
Channeling his inner beach boy, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner springs over Big Sandy with fluid strides. During morning gallops, he seems to glide effortlessly over the exhausting surface, gobbling up the track with unbridled joy.
And that could spell the end to racing’s epic Triple Crown drought.
Today, California Chrome faces the “Test of the Champion,” the 146th Belmont Stakes. His connections expect their rock star to roll.
Willie Delgado, Chrome’s exercise rider, knows best. He’s been aboard the popular chestnut almost every day this spring. He’s seen how the 3-year-old colt reacts to changes of scenery and surface. He feels the bounce in Chrome’s step.
“He didn’t like Churchill Downs at all,” Delgado said. “He was like a cat walking on water. It sure wasn’t his favorite track, and see what he did.”
Geared down, California Chrome won the Derby by 13/4 lengths.
“Pimlico, he was just OK,” Delgado added. “He didn’t really like it, either.”
In the Preakness, Chrome repeated his Derby performance, winning under wraps by 11/2 lengths.
“But this track, he LOVES it,” Delgado stressed. “Most horses have trouble with this track. It’s powdery on top and deep underneath. But Chrome just skips over it like nothing. He’s loved it from Day One.”
Friday’s gallop further convinced Delgado that California Chrome could be sitting on his best race yet.
“This is the strongest I’ve ever felt him,” he said. “It was hard to hold him back. He just wants to run.”
That Belmont love has buoyed all the people connected with California Chrome, who could become the first California-bred Triple Crown champion.
“If he performs in the afternoon like he trains in the morning, I really think he’ll put on a show,” said trainer Art Sherman.
California Chrome’s saga already reads like a fable. A colt with humble roots, he’s co-owned by Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev. Two sets of working-class people, they are lifelong racing fans who became small-time horse owners and breeders.
The product of an inexpensive mare and bargain stallion, California Chrome is the first horse they ever bred. He’s now a four-legged millionaire with a bankroll of more than $3.4 million. All that’s missing is a storybook ending to this Triple Crown trail.
“We need a hero right now and he could be the one,” Sherman said.
With jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, California Chrome has won six consecutive stakes. Unbeaten in 2014, he’s unquestionably the best and fastest horse in today’s race.
“I believe we’re going to make history,” Steve Coburn said.
But this Belmont Stakes is no stroll on the beach. California Chrome faces a field of 10 challengers, including New York-based Wicked Strong, Tonalist and Samraat. The two horses who have gotten closest to Chrome during his Triple Crown stretch – runners-up Commanding Curve in the Derby and Ride On Curlin in the Preakness – will try to run him down again.
Chrome’s camp won’t trade places with anybody.
“I wish every horse owner out there could have a horse like (Chrome) because he’s like one in a bazillion,” Coburn said. “We just hope and pray everybody gets a clean break, every horse has a safe trip and everybody gets to come home clean. Let the chips fall where they may. We’re hoping to see everybody in the winner’s circle.”
The most daunting factor may be history as California Chrome attempts to become the 12th Triple Crown champion.
Chrome’s team members can recite these facts in their sleep: No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. In those 36 years, a dozen horses have won the first two legs but failed to complete the coveted sweep.
But Chrome’s task is harder than past champions; no Triple Crown winner has had to face more than seven rivals. Affirmed beat four, including archrival Alydar.
No Derby winner – regardless of how they fared in the Preakness – has won the Belmont since Thunder Gulch in 1995.
But like sand through an hourglass, that drought may finally be about to end.
Count Affirmed’s owner among those who would welcome a California Chrome victory. Patrice Wolfson will be at the Belmont today and she hopes to celebrate.
“After 36 years, I really think it’s time,” Wolfson said after lunching with Chrome’s owners and trainer. “I think for myself personally it would be fine for him to join the (Triple Crown) club. Before (with other Triple Crown hopefuls), I didn’t really feel one way or another about their chances. But there’s something about this horse I really like.
“He does remind me of Affirmed a little bit,” she said. “They’re both chestnuts, of course, but it’s their versatility. Affirmed could be put anywhere on the racetrack; so can this horse.
“But there was something about all the other (12 Triple Crown candidates since Affirmed) that made me feel they wouldn’t get it done,” Wolfson said. “This horse can do it.
“I think he’ll win off (by a distance),” she added. “I think it will be a very joyful day.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.