Wednesday, May 28
Patrice Wolfson is ready to give up her title as the co-owner of the last Triple Crown winner.
She will get the chance if California Chrome is successful in his bid to join Affirmed and 10 other horses atop racing's pinnacle.
No horse since Affirmed in 1978 has swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Since then, 11 have won the first two legs only to fail in the 11/2-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races that are run over a five-week span. Wolfson and other connections of Triple Crown winners believe this may be the year they get to induct another member into their exclusive club.
"You just like to see a great horse win it and I think he's got the potential to be a great horse, so we'll be cheering for him," Wolfson said Tuesday by phone from New York.
Wolfson, who owned Affirmed with her late husband Louis, will be at Belmont Park on June 7. She'll be joined by others with ties to Triple Crown winners, including 92-year-old Penny Chenery, who owned 1973 champion Secretariat.
"If this horse can win the Triple Crown, I want to be there," Chenery said from her home in Boulder, Colo.
The jockeys who rode the last three Triple Crown winners will be at Belmont, too: Steve Cauthen (Affirmed), Jean Cruget (Seattle Slew) and Ron Turcotte (Secretariat).
The 1970s produced three Triple Crown winners, with Secretariat breaking a 25-year drought. Seattle Slew followed in 1977 and Affirmed came along the next year, leading many to believe the Triple Crown was an easy feat.
Now 36 years have passed since Cauthen, who was then 18, teamed with Affirmed to hold off Alydar in three thrilling races, capped by their victory by a head in the Belmont.
"It was one of the greatest races of all time to watch and to be involved in," he said. "Two great horses continuing a great rivalry, never giving up. It lived up to the hopes and expectations of everybody."
At 3-5, Affirmed was the last odds-on favorite to win the Belmont. California Chrome figures to be a low price, too, just like in the Preakness, where he was the overwhelming favorite.
Cauthen has watched California Chrome from afar and the chestnut colt reminds him of Affirmed. Cauthen and his horse got along well, and he sees California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza doing the same.
"He's got a lot of options with him. The horse seems to settle wherever he wants him and can pick up in an instant," said Cauthen, who runs a breeding operation in Verona, Ky. "This horse has got a great chance of pulling it off."
Billy Turner carries a title of his own: the last living trainer of a Triple Crown winner. He's gotten a close-up view of California Chrome, who has been training at Belmont Park where Turner's stable is based.
"He's such a nice horse," he said. "He goes out there, jogs off, gallops around, does whatever they like him to do, sort of notices the crowd and just seems to really enjoy what he's doing."
Turner had his hands full with Seattle Slew, describing the colt as "an absolute monster."
"All he wanted to do was train. He wasn't lovey-dovey," Turner said. "Once you trained him, he'd settle right down. My biggest concern with him was trying to figure out how to get him settled down enough to go a mile and a half in the Belmont."
That's a distance no 3-year-old has ever run before and few will be asked to go that far again in their careers. California Chrome has proven adaptable in the 1 1/4-mile Derby and 1 3/16-mile Preakness, where he got good trips and wasn't bothered by the noise of large crowds.
"He's proven already that he's the dominant horse in the 3-year-old ranks today," Turner said. "He would be unlucky not to win the Belmont."
Unlike some of the more regal bloodlines that produced the 11 Triple Crown winners, California Chrome comes from a modest pedigree as the product of a $2,500 sire. Top pedigree stallions typically cost between $75,000 and $100,000.
But he does have some Triple Crown connections. His father's side of the family traces back to both Seattle Slew and Secretariat.
"That makes it exciting for me," said Jim Hill, who co-owned Seattle Slew.
The last two horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown were never factors in the Belmont. Big Brown failed to finish the race in 2008 and two years ago I'll Have Another was scratched the day before with an injury.
"You never know," Cauthen said. "That's why they have to run the race."