California Chrome enjoying the Triple Crown spotlight at Belmont
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Hoofbeats in the mud broke the silence on a damp morning as four cameras whirred. California Chrome and exercise rider Willie Delgado took the long way around Belmont Park's mushy dirt, galloping "about 13/4 miles" near the outside fence.
When they finished, assistant trainer Alan Sherman walked over to Delgado for feedback. The exercise rider grinned and said, "He skipped over this track."
As Sherman led the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner back to Barn 26, two women paused briefly from their backstretch chores. "El caballo," said one, smiling at "the horse" who has become a national obsession.
Sixteen days before he will go for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, the leggy chestnut colt resumed his daily gallops Thursday. With more showers forecast, Sherman called an audible and sent him to the track at about 6:15, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
"I just wanted to get out there before the track got chewed up," he said. "Nobody wants to train over a track like that. It was kind of sloppy, but it was fine."
The rain resumed 10 minutes after the horse returned to the barn of former Newsday paperboy George Hall and his wife, Lori, whose one-hit wonder Ruler On Ice upset the 2011 Belmont in similar conditions. That "Test of the Champion" is only a footnote in racing history. The one on June 7 could turn California Chrome into an immortal.
"He feels better than he did before the Derby," Delgado said. "He's an amazing horse. I can't say enough about him."
From the way he looks for attention, the California-bred colt with the unfashionable pedigree seems to know he's a big deal, and six consecutive stakes wins have magnified his star power. "He's always liked to pose, now even more than before," Delgado said. "He's such a ham that whenever he hears a camera he stops and stares."
Could his next achievement be the first equine selfie?
A security guard who was around for the last Triple Crown 36 years ago pointed out that Affirmed also liked to have his picture taken. Is that an omen?
As long as their horse of a lifetime is happy, so are Sherman and his father, 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman. "I still think we can win the Triple Crown," Alan Sherman said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens, who swept five consecutive Belmonts from 1982-86, loved to say the buildings get a lot taller east of the Hudson. Alan Sherman never had been to Belmont, whose size "is kind of intimidating.
"It's massive," he said. "Your horse looks like an ant out there. This place is huge, but we can handle it. This horse seems to have a lot left in the tank."
Delgado is upbeat that "Chromie" can earn the crown in the big town.
"Like they say, 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,' " he said with a smile. "So let's see if we can do it."