California Chrome faces many obstacles in Triple Crown bid


Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, right, won Saturday’s Preakness Stakes and could become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

California Chrome faces plenty of challenges in his quest for immortality. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner seeks to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner since the Jimmy Carter administration.

The past 12 double crown winners were beaten in the Belmont Stakes in a variety of ways — including by a nose, a safety pin, a bad break from the starting gate and a broken leg in the stretch. So many close to greatness were denied in so many weird ways.

And now California Chrome readies for the June 7 race in Elmont, N.Y., hoping local track stewards reverse their ban on nasal strips so the colt doesn’t choke during his Triple Crown chance.

The gods of racing find amusing ways to deny their superstars.

California Chrome has won six straight since using a breathing aid also worn by many human athletes. Running 1½ miles in roughly 2½ minutes requires maximum lung capacity and the non-chemical aid certainly helps.

But so many more challenges await California Chrome at Belmont Park than nasal strips. The starting gate will be filled once more with horses eager for an upset. Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin’s late push should favor the longer Belmont, but his 2 of 11 record with nine on-board finishes suggests he could run down the street or to the gates of hell and still finish second.

Belmont Park officials list seven potential non-Preakness runners awaiting California Chrome, who’s entering his third race in five weeks. And the well-rested challengers really rankles California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn.

“There are people out there trying to upset the apple cart,” Coburn said. “They don’t want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck [because the Belmont winner’s share is $600,000].”

California Chrome’s biggest challengers may be beaten Derby runners Danza and Wicked Strong, who were third and fourth respectively. Both were passing horses in the Churchill Downs stretch. Wicked Strong’s trainer James Jerkens is the son of Allen Jerkens, known as the “Giant Killer” for legendary upsets.

But California Chrome’s biggest obstacle may be his breeding, which in racing circles is commonly known as “nothing out of nothing.”

His sire Lucky Pulpit’s stud fee was a paltry $2,500. He was even second choice when another stallion failed to impregnate Love the Chase, whose only victory was a modest claiming race. Lucky Pulpit was only 3 of 22 so this pair was meant for each other at a remote California ranch known more for producing cattle than crown contenders.

The guardians of the sport tend to deny pretenders like former claimer Charismatic, gelding Funny Cide and even strangely named Alysheba. Only blue bloods win the Triple Crown, not blue-collar pedigrees. If California Chrome succeeds, he has beaten bigger odds than those on the tote board.

Rick Snider has covered sports in Washington since 1978.

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Seth Vertelney · May 16, 2014