Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome has just three weeks and 1 1/2 miles of racing in the June 7 Belmont Stakes ahead of him in his bid to become horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, a task that has proved impossible in the new era of racing.
Since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978, more horses have completed the Derby-Preakness double (12) without adding the third jewel than have won all three in the series' 139-year-history (11).
And with each double-winning horse who falls short at Belmont Park, known as the "Test of the Champion," the racing community is left to wonder whether the three-race sweep will ever be achieved again.
"I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my entire lifetime," California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn said.
The 36 years since a Triple Crown winner is the longest wait ever, more than a decade longer than the previous record of 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. California Chrome's connections hope their colt will break that streak, not become the 23rd to fall short.
A year after Affirmed won in 1978, Spectacular Bid won the series' first two legs to kick off a stretch of near-misses featuring 12 horses who won the first two Triple Crown races but not the Belmont.
All but 2012 winner I'll Have Another ran in the Belmont, and all left Old Hilltop saddled with the expectations that they would be the horse to break the drought.
California Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza rode War Emblem to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2002, and said he'll likely enjoy himself more this time around.
The horse's connections, who are almost folksy by the standards of big-money thoroughbred racing, already have experienced the pressure of being the Derby winner at Pimlico Race Course. Trainer Art Sherman said that with all the attention he was getting, he felt like Willie Nelson.
But all their attention will be on California Chrome, whom they believe can win again in three weeks' time.
"I wouldn't want to be in anybody else's shoes right now," Sherman said. "I think the horse is a phenomenal horse. I know, right now, we're running on a high, but I think when we get to Belmont, this horse is going to run big."
Other trainers with Triple Crown aspirations likely have felt the same. But Steven Brandt, a Frederick native who owns Preakness entrant Kid Cruz, said horses have changed since Affirmed pulled off the feat.
"I still think the races are relevant," he said. "I just think that the breeding has changed the horse significantly, and it just makes it more difficult to come back as rapidly as 15, 20 years ago. So I think it makes it tougher. If you can do it today, you really have an excellent horse — not to take away from other Triple Crown winners. But racing and medication and everything was different back then."
With a longer layoff preferred, horses who run at Churchill Downs and Pimlico also face steeper competition in New York. Several Derby horses skip the Preakness and instead wait for the Belmont to give them a better chance on five weeks' rest.
Coburn lamented that trend after the Preakness, saying "there are trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart."
"They don't want a Triple Crown winner," he said. "They want a paycheck"
He said the fields for the Preakness and the Belmont should be limited to Kentucky Derby entrants, and that horses who don't run in the Preakness should not be eligible for the Belmont.
Many of his peers believe the sport needs a Triple Crown winner as well. Bob Baffert, who trained Bayern ahead of the Preakness, said Chrome is a "cool customer."
"He does everything right," Baffert said. "He's fast enough to stay out of trouble. Victor rides him with so much confidence."
Kid Cruz trainer Linda Rice also said California Chrome has a chance to join the list of Triple Crown winners, and that the absence of one since Affirmed proves just how hard it is.
"I think, sooner or later, it'd be good if we had one," Rice said. "We're due."
Rick Watson, a Pimlico regular from Mount Washington, said he doesn't think enthusiasm to win the race will wane among owners and trainers, even if the Triple Crown appears more unattainable each year.
"They're going to keep striving," Watson said.
As long as they do, there likely will be a large audience for those races at Belmont. The Triple Crown races are prestigious on their own, but the storylines that develop during Triple Crown season attract casual race fans such as Glenn Moyer of Parkville.
"I think this is going to generate a lot more interest in horse racing," he said. "I think it's exciting for such a unique success story to unfold the way it's unfolding."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun