06/06/2014 10:30AM

Fornatale: Not everyone rooting for Chrome


There is a famous story that the surviving members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL’s last undefeated team, drink champagne every season when the last unbeaten NFL team loses its first game, ensuring that their memorable feat goes unmatched for another year. Steve Wolfson Sr., the son of Harbor View Farm’s Louis Wolfson, can relate.

“My general feeling as part of Team Affirmed from all those years ago is that I never want anybody to win the Triple Crown ever again,” he said.

Steve Wolfson is one of the godfathers of handicapping tournaments. In 1991, he created the Thoroughbred Challenge at the Mirage in Las Vegas. He has played on the NHC Tour since its inception and has qualified for the National Handicapping Championship many times, including a berth for 2015. Like many a good handicapping-tournament participant, Wolfson is a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian. As such, he doesn’t want to see any of the venerable records in sports fall.

“I don’t mean to be egocentric about it,” he said. “I don’t want to see DiMaggio’s hitting streak broken. I don’t want to see any tennis player win four Grand Slams in a year like Rod Laver did in 1967. I don’t want anybody to ever go undefeated in pro football. And for me, that’s what the Triple Crown is like – it’s like a record I don’t want to see broken, ever. Sports are wonderfully democratic that way – we’re all entitled to root for or against whomever we want.”

But, of course, in the case of the Triple Crown, it’s more personal than just that. Wolfson will be in attendance Saturday in the Harbor View box, but he understands that others associated with Affirmed are looking at the moment in a different way.

“I know Patrice [Wolfson of Harbor View Farm] has said publicly that she’d like to see it for a variety of reasons,” he said. “And Steve Cauthen is on record saying that if California Chrome can get this distance, he’ll win for fun. But for me, family-wise, for my dad’s sake, I’d rather Affirmed be the last Triple Crown winner. My dad had such an amazing life, and Affirmed’s Triple Crown might have been the high point. I don’t ever want it to happen for that reason.”

All personal feelings aside, the Belmont Stakes is still the 11th race at Belmont on Saturday and will feature prominently in many contests. Wolfson doesn’t like California Chrome from that perspective either.

“I think he’s head and shoulders above these horses, but it takes a unique animal to win this race,” he said. “To start with the obvious, to win the Belmont, you have to be able to go a mile and a half. I think California Chrome is going to have everybody really excited as they turn for home, but I think he’ll be third at best.”

Wolfson emphasized that his feelings were not meant as a slam of the people or the horse trying to equal Affirmed’s feat.

“As I’ve gotten older, looking at the horses who have tried to win the Triple Crown, sometimes I’ll say to myself, ‘What is there not to like about these connections?’ But these people seem like awfully good, upright people,” he said. “Art Sherman seems like a terrific guy, and the horse is so attractive. I can’t knock the horse at all on a human level, so I have to go to something more cerebral, like handicapping.”

But hasn’t California Chrome shown the class to be a worthy successor to Affirmed? And doesn’t that, along with the wonderful human story surrounding the horse, make him one to root for? Wolfson allows for this possibility.

“It’s hard to say without the benefit of hindsight,” he said. “If I knew California Chrome would win the Triple Crown and go on to be a terrific 4-year-old, that would really sway my opinion.”

Wolfson, a well-known breeding expert from his time working with both Harbor View Farm and Happy Valley Racing, has zeroed in on a handful of contenders for possible use in contest play.

“Of the 11 horses entered here, I only see four that really want to go this far,” he said. “In no particular order: Wicked Strong, Tonalist, Commanding Curve, and Matuszak. The horse I like to win the race is Matuszak. I like his breeding, I love Bill Mott, and I think he’s coming up to the race right. He needs more distance, and a lot of these horses need less distance. And he’ll be 40 or 50 to 1.”

Like all seasoned handicappers, Wolfson allows for the possibility that he might be wrong. How will he feel if California Chrome gets to the wire first Saturday?

“I certainly won’t be overly crestfallen,” he said. “I’ll be thrilled that I was able to be there when it happened. But my overriding emotion will be disappointment.”

If California Chrome loses, however, you can bet that a bottle of champagne will be headed to the Harbor View box.