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Belmont Park abuzz with Triple Crown on the line

Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome and exercise ride

Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome and exercise ride Willie Delgado are escorted onto the big track in the early morning hours at Belmont Racetrack in Elmont June 6, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The possibility that California Chrome could capture the first Triple Crown since 1978 in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes has put buzz in the biz of horse racing for professionals and fans alike.

"I think going into the Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line is the same for everyone -- if I don't win it, I hope California Chrome does," said jockey Rosie Napravnik, 26, who is riding General a Rod in the big race, her third Belmont Stakes.

Napravnik rode General a Rod in his maiden race in October at Keeneland, Kentucky, and won. Aside from California Chrome, he and Ride On Curlin are the only horses in today's 11-horse field who also competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. General a Rod finished 11th in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness.

Now Napravnik is back on the horse for his eighth lifetime start. The fourth-leading money-winning jockey nationally in earnings this year, she is the only woman to have ridden in all three Triple Crown races. She rode in all three last year and was mounted in this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness on two different horses.

"It's cool for me; I rode all three of those races," she said in an interview on Wednesday. Then she added with a laugh: "It would be even cooler if I won. Personally, I would rather go with that story."

If California Chrome gallops to victory in the grueling 11/2-mile race -- the longest of the three -- it would break the most prolonged drought in Triple Crown history, dating to Affirmed 36 years ago. Only 11 horses have won racing's most prestigious prize, although since 1978, 12 horses have been contenders, including I'll Have Another in 2012, who was scratched the day before the Belmont.

A crowd of about 100,000 is predicted to pack the park Saturday. Belmont's record crowd of 120,139 was set in 2004, when Triple Crown contender Smarty Jones was defeated by long shot Birdstone.

Artie Magnuson, assistant trainer for Belmont-based trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, doesn't have a horse running in the big race. Nevertheless, he said, a Triple Crown contender brings the track alive.

"This is really fun," he said. "I think we all feel good when a horse does well."

Joseph Savino, 55, a fan from the Bronx, agreed.

"This is good for racing," said Savino, who was at the track Wednesday with his daughter Anna, 21. Savino said he fears that the sport is a "dying game, relegated to old men" -- though the father and daughter seemed to give the lie to that notion.

He and his daughter, a computer science major at The George Washington University, have been coming to the racetrack since she was a little girl.

"We enjoy the flavor of the track, and I enjoy a day out with my daughter," Savino said.

Both said they don't expect to be at the park in Elmont Saturday -- they plan to watch the race on television.

Not Judy Topich, 34, a college writing professor from Richmond, Virginia, who was watching the horses in the paddock before the fourth race of the day on Wednesday.

She said her father surprised her and her mother with three tickets to the Belmont after California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby on May 3. The family has been following the horse's fortunes since March, she said, when he won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park in California. And they were at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 17 to see him win the Preakness.

This is her first time at Belmont.

"I'm ready. I followed Big Brown. I followed Smarty Jones," Topich said, referring to the Triple Crown contenders in 2008 and 2004, respectively, who didn't prevail on the track known as "Big Sandy." She is hoping this time will be different.

"I brought my lucky earrings," she said.

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