Question: If your horse denied California Chrome the Triple Crown, would you feel a bit guilty? Well, getting 10 percent of the Belmont Stakes' $900,000 winner's share and celebrating in front of more than 100,000 people does sound like fun, and trainers Billy Gowan and Dallas Stewart are honest men.
According to equibase.com, Gowan never has hoisted a graded-stakes trophy in his 20-year career, so an upset by Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin would be glorious. "It's going to take a really good horse to beat him," Gowan said yesterday on a conference call. "If I can do it, I won't be too upset. I'll be elated, to tell you the truth."
Ten years ago, trainer Nick Zito, jockey Edgar Prado and owner Marylou Whitney were apologetic after their 36-1 shot Birdstone ruined Smarty Jones' bid for immortality. They had mixed emotions about depriving the sport of its 12th Triple Crown winner. If Commanding Curve, second in the Kentucky Derby, scores for Stewart, don't expect the same reaction.
The Mississippian was diplomatic but straightforward. "That's a tough question to answer," Stewart said. "Our job is to go out there and win horse races. Sure, if California Chrome does win, it's great for horse racing. But if we won it, I don't think it would hurt horse racing."
The saga of the colt who cost only $10,500 to breed is as improbable as any equine morality play by Disney. It's "Seabiscuit" meets "The Black Stallion," even if "Chromie" is a chestnut. His likable 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, and talkative co-owner, Steve Coburn, are compelling, and the media can't get enough of the California-bred with the humble pedigree.
Trying to defeat him will be business, not personal, but if it happens, it's a certainty the villainous horse and rider will be booed. That's what happened to Jerry Bailey and Empire Maker after they canceled the beloved New York-bred gelding Funny Cide's Triple Crown hopes in the rain-swept 2003 Belmont.
Jimmy Jerkens trains Wood winner Wicked Strong, who could be the second betting choice June 7. "One of the other horses is going to have to run the race of his life," Jerkens said, "and California Chrome is going to have to turn in a clunker."
Sherman returned to his stable in California after the Preakness, leaving his superstar with his son. Alan Sherman has been supervising at Belmont Park until his father arrives Monday afternoon. Art gets daily updates and watches video.
"He looks very good now, and I'm happy with the way he's training," Art said. "I just like what I see. I can't believe that a horse can bounce back from these races the way he does.'"
The great unknown is whether California Chrome can handle 11/2 miles. Perhaps rival jockeys will gang up on him, as Bailey and Gary Stevens did against Smarty Jones.
Art Sherman, a former rider, knows he can't prevent an ambush. "He's going to have a target on his back, that's just the way it is," he said. "I'm sure everybody knows you can't let him have his own way.
"I feel very comfortable coming into this race. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."