Seventy-seven-year-old Art Sherman popped out of his rented black stretch limo like a horse out of the starting gate and made a direct line to Belmont's Barn 26, Stall 7 at a brisk trot that would make California Chrome proud, were Triple Crown contenders capable of that sort of thing.
"You miss him," said Sherman, the famed trainer who'd just arrived from California after not seeing his horse in two weeks. "He looks great. The horse looks good . . . I go by his stall all the time and I see it's empty . . . It kinda makes me feel funny."
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Sherman, in a tan sports jacket and jeans, was quick to enthusiastically greet the chestnut thoroughbred -- who just as enthusiastically tried to bite his hand in a search for his snack of choice, Mrs. Pastures Cookies for Horses.
"I know he's all right because he tried to bite me right away," Sherman said, grinning. "I didn't have one and he was like, 'Hey, what's with it?' "
So goes the giddy final days before the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, when California Chrome, the first foal of an $8,000 mare, will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The media and fans back in California are breathless with anticipation -- "He's a rock star," Sherman said -- and he (the horse) gets piles and piles of fan mail, all of which he (the trainer) reads but doesn't have the time to respond to.
"I got this lucky dollar that one gal gave me," he said, opening up a stack of dollar bills to the final bill, safely ensconced in the middle. "Before the Derby, she gave me this dollar and she said, 'You're going to win the Triple Crown with this dollar.' . . . So that's not leaving my sight, right there. I'll never spend that dollar."
If that's not enough reason to believe that California Chrome may just be able to succeed where so many others have failed, there are the direct words of co-owner Steve Coburn, who was also on hand and said his horse looked better this week than he did before either the Derby or the Preakness.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he's going to win the Triple Crown," he said. "Because I've seen him perform the other two times and his looks this past Saturday tell me this horse is healthy, he's happy. He's gaining weight and putting on muscle. He's ready to go."
On Monday, Chrome galloped for a mile and a half before enjoying an afternoon of napping and straw-munching. Coburn said there are thoughts of racing him as a 4-year-old, though that decision will come after the Belmont.
"You know, we had this plan . . . from the time he started racing to the Derby," Coburn's wife, Carolyn, said. "Now our plan is done. We don't have any plan . . . This is not about the money. It's about the dream and it's about the love that we had for a mare named Love the Chase and our boy, California Chrome."
She teared up then. "That's what it's about," she said. "The money, of course, that's wonderful, but there are so many other things."