When Mike McCarthy saw California Chrome up close and personal for the first time at the Preakness, he marveled at the sight of the chestnut colt.
McCarthy, a former jockey and Maryland horse trainer who is now a Florida-based jockey agent, saw a horse poised for the moment.
"I thought his composure was amazing," McCarthy said. "He's able to handle all the pre-race activities with no problem, the big crowds. To me, it seems like he's a whatever happens happens kind of guy, and handles all of the pressure pretty good."
McCarthy and other local trainers have no doubt that California Chrome is the horse to beat at Saturday's Belmont Stakes. They also know that it won't be easy for Chrome — or his California-based trainer Art Sherman — to complete the first Triple Crown since 1978.
Like McCarthy, King T. Leatherbury was at the Preakness to see California Chrome keep his Triple Crown hopes alive. At the time, the horse had won five straight races, but the 81-year-old trainer still wasn't sold on his success.
"To run as good as he has … that sort of thing worries you — that he can't keep putting those races together," said Leatherbury, who owns a farm in Shady Side and trains horses in Laurel. "Sooner or later, you're expecting for him to come up with an off race. I thought he'd do it at the Preakness, but he didn't."
California Chrome fended off the 10-horse Preakness field, following up his Kentucky Derby victory and punching his ticket to New York for the Belmont.
Similar to Leatherbury, trainer Mike Trombetta was originally skeptical of California Chrome. But things have changed.
"I had my doubts early on, I'd be the first to admit," said Trombetta, who trains horses out of Laurel and Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. "But I don't doubt him at this point. He seems to just keep getting it done."
Still, there are many reasons why it's been 36 years since a horse won the Triple Crown.
Asked what challenges California Chrome will face in New York, trainer Anthony Dutrow responded without hesitation.
"All of them," said Dutrow, who has horses stabled at Fair Hill. "It's just so incredibly difficult to win. There's one way to win — that's to cross the finish line first. There's countless ways to lose."
If California Chrome falls short in the Belmont, trainers say it'll likely come as a result of three factors — timing, the field of horses and the distance of the race.
California Chrome will be racing for the third time in 35 days, something the colt has never done.
Curious at the turnaround the horse would make after the Preakness, Bowie trainer Chris Grove streamed California Chrome's first workout at Belmont Park last week on his computer, and liked what he saw.
"He had a beautiful, a beautiful workout," Grove said. "I would say he's in as good of shape mentally and physically as you could ask a horse to be in."
But no matter how comfortable California Chrome seems, a fresh field of horses is waiting for him, some of whom have spent weeks preparing for the Belmont after falling short in the Kentucky Derby.
"In the past, there's been many horses that looked like they'd do it [win the Triple Crown]," said trainer Kieron Magee, who has a farm in Sparks, "but up at Belmont, there's always a horse laying in the wings waiting to pounce on them."
The Belmont's distance will likely also threaten California Chrome's quest. At 1 ½ miles, it's the longest of the Triple Crown races, and California Chrome has yet to run that far in a race.
"I would say the distance of a mile and a half is a question mark for damn near everyone in the race," Trombetta said. "It's a distance that most of them will only do once in their lifetime."
The trainers picked similar words in discussing California Chrome's speed, consistency and durability.
But when faced with another question — What are the chances California Chrome is the first Triple Crown winner since 1978? — they have different answers.
Grove says he doesn't want to jinx the colt, but "whether he wins or loses, the race will be decided in the last 70 yards."
For Dutrow, the question doesn't require much thought. "He's already won two of them," he said nonchalantly.
Magee isn't shy about expressing his support for California Chrome with a big-picture view of things.
"I'm hoping he does it," Magee said. "Racing could use a Triple Crown winner. It's been a long time."
Though he gave the horse a "better than average chance," Trombetta held firm.
"I think he's going to have to do everything right," he said.
Without any specific reasoning behind it, Leatherbury provided a nice round number.
"He's an awful good horse, so I'd give him a 60 percent chance to pull it off," he said.
McCarthy was the highest on the horse of them all. California Chrome has an "85 percent chance of winning," he said.
Despite the high regard, McCarthy said something none of the other trainers interviewed did. But it's something that's likely on everyone's mind:
"He's not unbeatable."
twitter.com/dodgerthatCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun