ELMONT, N.Y. — Horse racing might have lost its enchantment but the lure of an irresistible horse galloping toward history can still be one of sports’ most compelling fairy tales.
Friday, a day before California Chrome attempts to complete his remarkable Cinderella journey from $10,500 foal to the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, Belmont Park prepared for another magical Saturday and another enormous crowd.
Workers buzzed around a new trackside tent and an extra seating area, both recently installed to accommodate a gathering that could exceed the record 120,000 who flocked here in 2004. That Triple Crown dream ended in disappointment when Smarty Jones failed to become the 12th horse to accomplish what Affirmed last did in 1978.
In anticipation of this California Chrome cascade, the Long Island Railroad announced that an additional 18 trains would depart Penn Station today. Newscasts and newspapers offered fevered travel advice for today.
And New York Racing Authority executive David O’Rourke predicted this 146th Belmont would be the highlight of “the greatest day of racing ever in New York,” a state with a centuries-old history at the sport’s highest level.
The anticipation bubbled over Friday when California Chrome’s appealing but increasingly besieged owners asked track officials to keep the media away from their 3-5 favorite before his morning workout.
The quarantine didn’t last long. Soon California Chrome’s emotional and talkative co-owner, Steve Coburn, was telling reporters that he was “as excited as everyone else to see history made.”
“He’s going to do it,” said Coburn, the everyman owner of this everyman horse.
To do it, to end modern racing’s longest Triple Crown drought, the easy winner in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness must overcome the traditional Belmont challenges: a 1 1/2-mile distance that he’s never traversed before and won’t again, plus a field filled with fresher competitors.
According to trainer Art Sherman, California Chrome, far from withering in the grueling pressure of three classic races in five weeks, has gained 30 pounds since the Kentucky Derby.
His main competitor in the race to be televised live on NBC, with a 3:52 p.m. PDT scheduled post time, come from rested Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second choice.
“He showed a lot of guts (in finishing fourth at the Derby)”, said trainer James Jerkens. “He seems healthy and sharp.”
Others expected to make a run are Peter Pan winner Tonalist, who skipped the Derby and Preakness; Ride On Curlin, a late-charging second at Pimlico; and Commanding Curve, whose West Point ownership group includes Terry Finley.
A 15-1 shot, Commanding Curve, the Derby runner-up, skipped the Preakness to point toward this event.
“There’s no rule that says a Derby horse has to run in the Preakness,” Finley said. “Ideally, I’d like to see a dead-heat with our horse (and California Chrome). But if we can’t win, I hope Chrome does. It would be great for our sport.”
While all 10 challengers are eager to spoil the massive party, their trainers know it won’t be easy.
“I wasn’t a fan (of California Chrome) going into the Derby,” said Dale Romans, the trainer of 20-1 Medal Count. “I thought West Coast horses were too soft. I was wrong.”
At Belmont Park’s grandstand entrance Friday, wheelchair-bound Ron Turcotte signed autographs alongside the astounding photo of his legendary 31-length victory aboard Secretariat in 1973.
The 72-year-old ex-jockey said he felt something in the Belmont air that reminded him of that long-ago Saturday when the great Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century.
“Just listen to what these people are talking about,” Turcotte said. “It’s all about Chrome. He won’t win by 31 lengths or do it in 2:24 the way Secretariat did. But if he does take it, the excitement might be just as great.”