06/05/2014 11:20AM

Hovdey: California Chrome arrives at moment of truth or dare

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome, walking the shed row, deserves a chance to keep racing if he completes the Triple Crown on Saturday at Belmont Park.

The melting point of chromium is 3,465 degrees Fahrenheit, 1,857 degrees Centigrade, or 20 minutes spent in an underground New York City garage on a warm weekday evening waiting for someone to find your rental car.

If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, he will have withstood more heat and more pressure than any American Thoroughbred since Affirmed said “no means no” to Alydar 36 years ago.

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If California Chrome wins, he will honor the Triple Crown heartbreaks of Silver Charm being ambushed in the last yards by Touch Gold, of Real Quiet nipped at the very end by Victory Gallop, of Smarty Jones, that most generous of Thoroughbreds, fighting back a wave of attacks until he had nothing left to answer Birdstone.

If California Chrome wins, he should get the key to every city with a racetrack, every town near a horse farm. How about a ticker-tape parade down Broadway? Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will be in the Belmont crowd, could make that happen. At the very least, if he wins, this time next week, California Chrome should be grazing on the White House lawn.

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The pain threshold for the human ear is a sound that reaches the level of 120 to 130 decibels. The loudest crowd noise on record is 137.6, which occurred at a Seattle Seahawks home game in 2013. If California Chrome wins the Belmont, there will be a wall of noise arising from the grand old track that could threaten the record, or, at the very least, challenge the sound made by the loudest rock-band performance ever measured, at 129.5. The name of the band was Manowar.

If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, there will be reason for sports fans, both young and not so young, to put away the balls and bats and hoops and pucks for at least a brief moment to consider this other game played daily across the land. Or not. Their loss.

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But if California Chrome wins, and the Triple Crown becomes a living thing once again, there can be no hesitation by the leaders of the sport to take swift and serious action to enact reforms that not only will begin to patch the public-relations holes in the game but effect fundamental changes that marry the best of how it used to be and how it should be.

That is why, if California Chrome wins Saturday, the racing game will lose if the conversation turns immediately to his value as a stallion, of how this gorgeous young creature can be monetized, then disappear, never to be heard from again as a sports icon. All Triple Crown winners are deemed great. But the truly great racehorses among them have gone on to even more remarkable accomplishments as they aged. If California Chrome wins, he deserves the chance to join them.

There are still good colts in his way, but if California Chrome loses the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, it will be because he has been able somehow to hide from trainer Art Sherman and his diligent crew the true amount that is left in the tank. The great ones can be that way — impenetrable and private, cleaning their feed and otherwise acting as if all is well.

Lost in the Fog, the finest young sprinter of the past decade, was growing malignant tumors while standing in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs after winning the Aristides Handicap in 2006. Three months later, he was gone. Bedside Promise, a vibrant performer in sprints and routes, finished an inexplicable last one day at Bay Meadows in the fall of 1987 and then dropped dead on the way back to the barn. His heart had stopped, but an autopsy revealed that a staph-like infection had been ruining his lungs. He just hadn’t bothered to show any symptoms.

The Triple Crown is worth a lot but also costs a lot. Just as vivid as the memories of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed at their moment of Belmont glory are the images of Big Brown, befuddled and eased, of Charismatic and Tim Tam finishing on three good legs, of Count Fleet, a runaway Triple Crown champion who stood in the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle with a damaged front ankle, never to race again.

If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, it will be not only because he is a fast horse, but also a smart horse and a brave horse, untroubled by unexpected sights and sounds, curious without unreasonable fear. His instinct for self-preservation was dramatically illustrated in his first encounters with the foreign racing surface at Churchill Downs in the week before the Kentucky Derby, when he tread carefully – “like a cat walking on water,” according to exercise rider Willie Delgado – until the colt was convinced that he could exert himself without harm.

California Chrome’s people never begrudge his caution. When he stands and surveys the scene each morning before finally heading to the track, the colt, even at the tender age of 3, is asserting his role as a hard-wired pack leader.

“I’ll look at him sometimes and wonder what he’s thinking,” Sherman said. “I realize I’ll never know. But I’ve got to pay attention in case he needs me.”

Just like the game always needs a horse on which to hang its hopes and dreams.

If California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes ...