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updated: 6/4/2014 8:53 PM

Will racing gods smile upon California Chrome?

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  • California Chrome plays with his bridle as exercise rider Willie Delgado holds him during a bath after workout at Belmont Park on Wednesday.

      California Chrome plays with his bridle as exercise rider Willie Delgado holds him during a bath after workout at Belmont Park on Wednesday.
    Associated Press

 
By Jim O’Donnell
Special to the Daily Herald

California Chrome -- Triple Crown champion or merely a great title for a song Brian Wilson and Mike Love should have written for the Beach Boys during their "Little Deuce Coupe" phase?

The world will find out Saturday when the unlikely mega-colt tests the final furlongs to immortality in the Belmont Stakes (NBC, 3:30 p.m.).

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Close to 110,000 are expected at "Big Sandy" -- a mammoth mile-and-a-half Long Island oval. Another 20,000 or so will be at Arlington International, where six of the 11 Triple Crown victors have raced. Gates open at 11 a.m. with admission $8. Belmont post is 5:52 p.m.

When it comes to chasing the final leg of a Triple Crown, there are no experts, no sharpies, no GPS. There are only the racing gods. And believe it, as sure as America's got too much talent, they exist.

They somehow made sure a Watergate-wary America got Secretariat in 1973. They made sure he won the Belmont in mythic fashion and didn't stop running until he electrified 41,223 fans in a glorious exhibition at Arlington Park three weeks later.

Two champs -- Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) -- quickly followed. Since, the gods have turned away an unlucky dozen who completed the daunting Kentucky Derby-Preakness double.

Some -- like Real Quiet (1998), who lost by a nose -- had bad, bad luck. Others, notably War Emblem (2002) and Big Brown (2008), riled the gods with their suggestion of evil or hubris.

War Emblem went from an improbable win in the Illinois Derby to an odd ownership change (to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman) to the Derby-Preakness twister. In the Belmont, under Victor Espinoza -- the jockey of California Chrome -- the devilish speedster broke poorly and was toast. Did anyone really think the gods were going to let a Saudi prince win 13 miles from the still-smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center nine months after 9/11?

As for Big Brown, he blew through Louisville and Baltimore like Poe on a bender. But he also had Rick Dutrow, a boastful trainer, and IEAH Stables, bent on revolutionizing horse ownership.

For awe, YouTube "Big Brown Belmont." It's the Zapruder film of horse racing. The gods had a welcoming committee for Dutrow's "cinch." Jockey Kent Desormeaux wound up pulling BB late with no discernible injury and even now, no coherent explanation of what went wrong.

Will California Chrome win?

His owners, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, have walked humbly. Trainer Art Sherman, 77, has remained in a state of sanctifying grace. For the month of May, "Chromie" was without question the best 3-year-old colt in North America. Some say he's not bred to "get" the mile-and-a-half of the Belmont. These days in America, what Thoroughbreds are?

But Cal-Chrome also has Espinoza steering, who is a lifetime 2-for-65 in stakes races at Belmont. Also, all 11 Triple Crown champs have finished in the money at least twice at Belmont before their Belmont Stakes date. CC has never run there.

The colt will face 10 honest challengers, none more prominent than the rested Commanding Curve, who was charging at Derby's end.

There's also Wicked Strong, whose trainer Jimmy Jerkens is almost as smart as his father Allen. The senior Jerkens beat Secretariat twice after Big Red's visit to Arlington Heights, both in New York, with Onion in the Whitney and Prove Out in the Woodward.

So, Saturday, will America's 36-year Triple Crown drought end?

The gods say ….

• Jim O'Donnell covered horse racing at the Daily Herald for eight years and later reported on 27 Triple Crown races, including nine Belmonts. Current clients include Arlington International Racecourse, where he writes "The Arlington Post-Times."

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