California Chrome ready for race with history

Waiting is the hardest part.

The preparation is complete. California Chrome is as fit as a horse can be. He’s ready to run the longest race of his life. Now, he just has to win it.

On the eve of racing history, the colt seems to know something big is about to happen, say the people who know him best.

“He’s sensing it,” said assistant trainer Alan Sherman, who has spent six weeks on the road with this one horse. “He’s getting his game face on, for sure. He knows it’s getting closer.”

In Saturday’s 146th Belmont Stakes, California Chrome will try to complete the Triple Crown, one of the rarest feats in sports. Only 11 horses have done it – and none since 1978.

“I can see it in him; this horse is becoming more confident,” co-owner Steve Coburn said. “He knows why he’s here. I honestly believe he knows what he’s about to do.”

The magnitude is sinking in with his owners, too. The product of an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stallion, California Chrome is the first horse bred by partners Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., and their bargain colt has become the first California-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

With eight wins from 12 starts, he’s earned more than $3.4 million. A victory in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes would add another $800,000 to that bankroll, plus unlimited prestige, and his value as a stallion could reach $30 million.

California Chrome has won six consecutive stakes races; he hasn’t lost since Nov. 1, when he hopped at the start of a mile race at Santa Anita and was off behind the field. He was green and inexperienced then.

“To watch this little guy grow up and watch him develop, watch his personality develop, just watch his mind develop, he’s an amazing animal,” Coburn said.

During the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, California Chrome has become accustomed to New York’s high humidity and unpredictable weather. On his daily tour of Belmont Park’s massive main oval, he’s coped with rain and sloppy tracks – including Thursday morning’s deluge – and nothing seems to faze him.

The colt has jogged or galloped 2 miles a day preparing for the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, and he’s logged more than 30 miles on the track since his arrival May 20. Instead of the exercise wearing him out, though, he’s gained 50 pounds – all muscle – and grown a little taller.

“Actually, he’s gotten bigger since the last time I saw him before the Preakness,” Coburn said. “His girth has grown, too; he’s bigger chested.”

Extra saddle straps were packed, fortunately; California Chrome’s girth now measures 72 inches.

“He’s matured,” Coburn said. “He’s learned to relax. He’s very, very calm, but he really enjoys what he’s doing. I tell you this horse is smart. He knows what’s fixing to happen.”

Catching the nuances of his daily schedule, California Chrome picks up clues that he’s about to race. And once his blinkers go on Saturday, it will be hard to keep him standing still.

“His personality is getting bigger, too,” Coburn said. “He’s getting really aggressive.”

The colt also can turn on the charm. Walking the shedrow after his morning bath, California Chrome repeatedly stopped on every lap of Barn 26 when he passed trainer Art Sherman, who arrived in New York on Monday.

“He wants to be petted,” Sherman said as he stroked Chrome’s blazed face. “He’s been missing me. He’s doing great. But with all the travel and stuff, I’m about worn out.”

At 77, Sherman – who started his training career in Sacramento 34 years ago – became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby and an overnight media sensation. He’s juggled dozens of TV interviews with his training duties; he has 20 other horses at Los Alamitos that need attention, too. Sherman also has tried to accommodate his star horse’s growing fan base.

“This horse has fans everywhere,” Sherman said. “I get letters from all over the country, not just from California, but all over the world, too; England, France, Australia. This horse is unbelievable. Everybody is following him.”

On race day, California Chrome will jog in the early morning, said Alan Sherman, Art’s son and right-hand man.

“Then, he’ll just relax in the afternoon until it’s time to get ready,” Alan Sherman said. “The race isn’t until 6:50 p.m. (local time), so it’s almost night. It’s going to be a looooong day.”

The day will be long for his connections, too; they know what’s at stake.

“We’re ready to get it going and get back home,” Sherman said. “We’ve been six weeks on the road. But we wouldn’t want it any other way.”

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