- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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ELMONT, N.Y. -- His older brother and idol, Alberto Delgado, is a stakes-winning jockey who has nearly 3,000 victories in his career.
But Willie Delgado? He was only 6-for-116 as a trainer, and in 45 tries, he never rode a professional mount to a win. But he is the exercise rider for California Chrome who rode the horse over the weekend when Chrome turned in the electrifying workout that left experts tossing around compliments such as "freak" and "monster" as they explained why they think the chestnut 3-year-old seems primed to be the first colt in 36 years to complete a Triple Crown sweep at the Belmont Stakes.
Willie was seated inside the racetrack's fourth-floor restaurant at a table with the rest of Chrome's connections Wednesday and watched as the horse drew the No. 2 post position for Saturday's 11-horse race. He is still amazed at how he ended up part of this group that is sitting on the brink of history -- and how Alberto, who got him the job galloping California Chrome last August when he was still Chrome's jockey, is not here.
Nor is Alberto likely to show up for Saturday's race.
"He was at the Preakness [that Chrome won] because he was riding that day," Willie explained. "But, you know, I don't think he's coming. People are sarcastic, and there's always the people that are going to jump him, going to be making fun of him, you know? In Maryland, they were saying to him, 'Oh, you're going to be the Paul Feliciano of this era.'"
"Paul Feliciano," Willie repeated. "He was the guy that rode Secretariat the first few times. And then they switched jockeys [to Ron Turcotte after just two starts], and Secretariat started winning all the stakes races."
Unlike Secretariat, perhaps the most famous race horse ever, Feliciano is now largely forgotten to history. But Turcotte, a Hall of Famer, was aboard Secretariat when he blazed to his 1973 win in the Kentucky Derby, then an impressive victory in the Preakness and then, three weeks later, the most astonishing single-day performance in the history of horse racing: an otherworldly time of 2:24 and a 31-length victory in the Belmont that CBS announcer Charles "Chic" Anderson immortalized with his thrilling call, "Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
Nobody is suggesting Chrome is the second coming of the great Secretariat, however.
Whether switching jockeys before a successful Triple Crown sweep is a parallel between the two horses remains to be seen.
Veteran rider Victor Espinoza is 6-0 on Chrome since taking over on Dec. 22, after the horse finished sixth in the Del Mar Futurity and Golden State Juvenile with Alberto Delgado aboard. ("It was bad racing luck, bad luck is all it was," Willie said with a sigh. "But he understood why a change had to be made.")
Espinoza is a fine jockey and got War Emblem to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown in 2002. But he knows something about bad racing luck too. War Emblem's chances suffered when he stumbled out of the gate. He was beaten by a 70-1 shot named Savara.
Alberto Delgado will never know if he could've gotten Chrome to the point Espinoza has. But Willie, who sold off a little five-horse string he trained and raced in Laurel, Maryland, to join his brother in California last August, does have firsthand knowledge of what to expect from California Chrome. And he's impressed by -- not worried about -- the reservoir of strength the colt has left going into his third major race in five weeks.
He sees Chrome's flashy workout over the weekend as a sign of big things to come in Saturday's race. The same goes for how the horse has gained an inch of girth instead of losing weight.
"The very first time I rode him, I said, 'He's the one.' We just clicked," Willie said. "But last Saturday, he was unbelievably strong. ... Starting at about the ¾ pole to the wire here, he started pulling my insides out [as Delgado gripped the reins]."
Like Art Sherman, the 77-year-old head trainer of Chrome and father of assistant trainer Allan Sherman who slept in one of the barns on the Belmont backstretch decades ago when he was here with Swaps as a "young feller," and like Chrome's throwback owners, who were mocked for expecting big things from a colt bred out of an $8,000 mare, both Delgados are horsemen who have been waiting for a special horse their entire lives.
Like Sherman again, Willie was a bit awestruck when he got his first look at the enormous size of Belmont's 1 ½-mile track. Those sweeping turns that never, ever seem to end. That finish line that never seems to come.
"It is intimidating," he said. Then, looking a little sheepish, he laughed and added, "I got lost out there the first day I was galloping Chrome. Seriously.
"I'm going and going ... and going and going. If I would've had a mic on me that day, it would've made the funniest bloopers or whatever. Because I'm talking to the horse like a person. I'm like, 'Dude, is this track ever going to end?' I was like, 'Seriously, you gotta slow down because I don't know, my god, are we at a racetrack, or are we at the Sahara desert?' My knees got to shaking, and I'm thinking, 'Wait a second, I'm only at the half-mile pole. I've still got a long ways to go!"
For that reason, a lot of horse racing fans are doubtful that California Chrome can pull this off. Many note there will be fresher horses in the race, those that skipped the Preakness.
But that pessimism might just be the fatigue of seeing the past 12 Triple Crown contenders fail after three horses, including Affirmed in 1978, completed the feat in the 1970s alone. As Affirmed co-owner Patrice Wolfson joked after the completion of Wednesday's Belmont draw, "I feel like my last name has become, 'There goes the last Triple Crown winner.'"
"It's time," she added with a laugh. "It's time."
With a little more luck -- the good kind -- California Chrome will break that drought.
And if that happens, Willie said it will change his life.
In the first few weeks after his brother lost the job of riding Chrome, Willie said, even talking about it "was bittersweet for me." He shoved away tears in a few interviews. But after the Preakness, he said, "Alberto told me it hurts. But he's content now. He's happy. Because, like he said, 'At least one of us made it.'"
Chrome's handlers exude confidence that their horse is going to win Saturday's race. And Willie sounds like he hasn't given up hope that he might yet see his brother turn up Saturday to cheer along the rail or perhaps join the shed row gathering after the race.
"Being here now, it's starting to feel more real -- like I could be part of something that is sketched down on paper as history," Willie said Wednesday, looking around the room and out toward the empty track. "But having my brother here? That would be the cherry on top. Because I know I wouldn't be here without him."
California Chrome's success in the first two legs of the Triple Crown is bittersweet for brothers Willie and Alberto Delgado.