ELMONT, N.Y. — It's hard to convey how massive Belmont Park looks from the ground, with a grandstand capable of holding more than 100,000 spectators and a track that seems to bend on forever around an infield of open grass and ponds.
The scale certainly struck California Chrome's connections when they brought him to New York three days after his triumph in the Preakness Stakes.
"The horse acclimated better than I did," assistant trainer Alan Sherman said. "I was a little intimidated at first."
It wasn't the Triple Crown stage or all the attention that would descend on him.
"Just the sheer size of it," Sherman said. "You walk out for the first time and see that massive racetrack, it's like wow. Your horse looks like an ant on the other end of the track."
Exercise rider Willie Delgado described riding California Chrome onto the track.
"I got lost out there the first couple times," he said. "My knees started shaking and Chrome was like, 'Are we done yet?' I'm like, 'We still got ¾ of a mile to go.' But it took all of about two days. He knew where the poles were before I did. He made it easy for me."
Sherman knows the size of the track is more than an abstract issue. Come Saturday, his horse will be contending with a distance at which he's never been tested. But he sounded confident in jockey Victor Espinoza's ability to engineer the correct race.
"I'm sure they'll take a few different runs at him, like they did at Pimlico," Sherman said. "You can't move too early on him. You just have to sit as long as you can. … I think his running style, his tactical speed, will help. It's going to be a really tough race. They're all tough, but I think this could be the toughest."
Nasal strips redux
Though New York officials quickly ended any formal controversy about the 3-inch nasal strip California Chrome wears for races, Sherman continued to receive questions about the adhesive on Thursday.
He downplayed the impact, noting he doesn't use the strips for other horses in the California barn he works with his father, Art Sherman.
"I don't know if it's done anything for the horse to be honest with you," the assistant trainer said. "The owners wanted to put it on, so I put it on."
In 2012, race stewards barred Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion I'll Have Another from wearing a similar strip for the Belmont (he scratched the day before the race because of a tendon injury). Art Sherman said a similar ruling could have kept California Chrome from pursuing a Triple Crown in this year's Belmont.
But the stewards, backed by a veterinarian's written opinion, took only one day to permit the strip, designed to keep a horse's airway clear. New York was the only state that had barred the strips.
Battle of the fillies
Though California Chrome's quest for the Triple Crown will overshadow all, Saturday's undercard features an intriguing battle between three of the nation's best fillies.
Beholder, the winner of two Breeder's Cup races; Close Hatches, winner of three Grade 1 stakes races; and Princess of Sylmar, a New York favorite with four Grade 1 stakes wins in 2013, will square off in the $1 million Ogden Phipps Handicap.
"This is a huge race," said Princess of Sylmar's trainer Todd Pletcher, who will also saddle two horses in the Belmont. "It's a Breeders' Cup quality field, and it's exciting. We're very respectful of how good Beholder is and Close Hatches. At the same time we're excited about the opportunity to get to run against them on a track where [Princess of Sylmar] has had success."
New York has pumped millions of dollars into increased purses, trying to make Belmont Stakes Day one of the biggest in racing. The purse for the Belmont Stakes increased from $1 million to $1.5 million for 2014. And, in addition to the Ogden Phipps, the slate will include the $1 million Knob Creek Manhattan and the $1.25-million Metropolitan Handicap.