06/07/2014 8:01AM

Belmont Stakes: California Chrome ready after final jog

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome walks around Belmont Park the Friday before his Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes.

It’s about 5:30 a.m. the morning of the Belmont Stakes, and dual classic winner California Chrome is sauntering down the horsepath under the trees, ears pricked, seemingly unperturbed by the handful of press and well-wishers here to get one final look the morning of the most significant test of his young life. Exercise rider Willie Delgado pats the colt on the neck, then throws a thumbs-up to the rider of a passing horse who hollers a good luck wish to the horse looking to end 36 years of crushed hopes if he can sweep the Triple Crown later today.

California Chrome steps onto the gap near the 10-furlong pole of the massive Belmont Park oval, turning the wrong way to jog a lap, just stretching his legs before the 1 1/2-mile Test of the Champion at about 6:52 this evening. He passes the point where the starting gate will be positioned today, where he’ll load in post 2 and be asked to stand quietly in front of the roaring crowd. Past the point where, in 1937, a fractious War Admiral stumbled and clipped his own heel at the start, leaving a trail of blood as he locked up his own Triple Crown.

Continuing up the outer rail past the still-empty grandstand, California Chrome jogs past the point where, in deep stretch, Jorge Velazquez forced young Steve Cauthen to switch to his left-handed stick on Affirmed, and the colt responded by out-gaming archrival Alydar, becoming the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978. He continues on around the sweeping far turn, where later today, he’ll be asked for everything he has with 10 rivals breathing down his neck. He continues past the point on the backstretch where Secretariat finally left Sham in his dust for good, pulling away for the defining virtuoso performance in the history of the sport. He continues past the mile pole, where after slow opening fractions, Eddie Arcaro elected to seize control of the 1941 Belmont with Whirlaway – a question Victor Espinoza may be forced to ask himself later today, as the pace develops around the tactically gifted California Chrome.

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Coming around the clubhouse turn back to the gap, California Chrome momentarily is lost in the rays of the sun, which is still making its way over the horizon. A picture-perfect day is developing, with clear skies and a high of 83 degrees in the afternoon. While others squint against the sun, trainer Art Sherman appears unperturbed, joking with onlookers. Hands in his pockets, he doesn’t mince words.

“We’re ready.”

A few other Belmont horses are trickling out to the track to stretch their legs, among them Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin, emerging from Barn 26 moments after California Chrome heads back inside. Although all the serious work has been completed, there’s a focused air to the morning as horses move purposefully to and from the track. Training hours conclude early today, before the gates open at 8:30 a.m. to begin letting what is expecting to be a record-threatening crowd in excess of 120,000 streaming into the track.

They’ve come from all over the country – a trio of girls from California Chrome’s home state of California is among the first through the general admission gates, sporting purple and green T-shirts. Those staking out their spots on the apron early lean on the chain-link fence to watch Secretariat’s Belmont, being screened on the infield television, with rapt attention. The throngs are here to witness some of the best racing of the year, certainly: Belmont’s blockbuster card features 10 stakes races, with runners that include two-time champion Beholder, Belmont winner Palace Malice, Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar, and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents. But they also are here for a chance to witness history – to see if the Triple Crown trophy, which temporarily vacated its display case at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky., will be presented at last.

“My job is done,” Delgado said, holding the end of the lead shank. He gestured to California Chrome, ears still up, eyeing his public. “It’s all up to him.”