Horse racing fans are in the midst of the gallop toward the most prized award in the sport - with California Chrome two-thirds of the way to the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing - given to the horse that wins each of the three main American horse races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, though in the intervening years, many competitors have come close to taking home the prize, with 11 horses winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but falling behind at the Belmont. The Belmont Stakes, located in Elmont, New York, is the longest of the three tracks, measuring a mile and a half in length.
Cricket Goodall is the executive director with the Maryland Horse Breeder Association, a group that works to promote and enhance thoroughbred breeding and racing in Maryland.
"We like to say that Maryland had thoroughbred racing back when Kentucky was still a prairie," Goodall said. "We've got the longest history in the East Coast, and longer than almost anywhere except for some sites out West."
Goodall said though Maryland horses haven't been as notable in the three most visible thoroughbred races - the last Maryland-bred horse to win the Preakness was Testimony in 1983 - they are still very competitive in the lower-profile, yet high difficulty, races. Despite Maryland falling back in the Triple Crown races, Goodall said the state still has a role to play in the upcoming Belmont race, as California Chrome's mother and grandmother were bred in Chestertown, Maryland. She said the mother was sold in a Timonium horse sale, ending up in California.
California Chrome is owned by Perry Martin and Steve Coburn. Goodall said the horse is likely named for his birthplace and the white marks on his face and legs - known in horse racing parlance as chrome. Chrome won the Kentucky Derby May 3 and the Preakness May 17. The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the competition, is June 7.
"It's a very challenging task," Goodall said. "You're having horses that are just 3 years old running these races. Technically they're just teenagers. You'd have to be at the top of your athletic game to be able to do this. There's a lot of discussion about moving the dates so they're farther apart to increase their chances, but it needs to be difficult to do. That's the whole point."
Goodall said the legend of the Triple Crown grew organically, with Sir Barton winning all three races in 1919. The feat wouldn't be repeated until the 1930s. During this decade, the crown would be won three more times.
"It sort of makes a trail up the East Coast. When the first horse won the Triple Crown, they realized what a difficult feat it was. That's when it started to build," Goodall said. "As it became the thing to do, these races became the events of thoroughbred racing."
Tammy Naill-Waddell, vice president of the Carroll County Western Circuit - a local show horse organization - said she is looking forward to the upcoming race because it has been too long since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978. The 36 years without a winner is the longest drought since Secretariat broke a 25-year streak in 1973. Naill-Waddell said she thinks the odds are in California Chrome's favor.
"He's a high contender and he's a very high-performing horse," Naill-Waddell said. "I'm pretty sure he should win it. The last one I physically watched was pretty traumatic. It was when Charismatic was running the Belmont in 1999. I watched him break down when he broke his leg."
Goodall said the potential for a Triple Crown winner brings additional eyes to the sport.
"It's not often that horse racing makes the national news," Goodall said. "The Triple Crown does shine a spotlight, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad."
Carroll fans who don't want to make the trip to New York to see horse racing and competition will have the opportunity Sunday, June 1, at the Carroll County Western Circuit horse show, starting at 9 a.m. Naill-Waddell said the show will feature racing and show events from riders of all ages on the two rings at the Carroll County Equestrian Center.
The Western Circuit features classes for people of all ages and abilities, training riders in both the pleasure ring and the speed ring.
Naill-Waddell said the event provides the opportunity to see horses compete, and get to know the intricacies of the animals.
"Horses just have this demeanor about them. They're majestic creatures, and if you get really close to them and you bond to them, they're the most special thing in the world," Naill-Waddell said. "My oldest horse is named Albert, and I call him my oldest child. People look at me and they shake their heads, but he's more than horse to me. I take care of him as if he was my child. They're just amazing creatures and they do heal souls."
According to the 2010 Maryland Equine Census, Maryland has the highest density of horse ownership of any state, with around 79,100 horses, ponies, donkeys and burros. Nearly 30,000 of those are race horses.