- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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ELMONT, N.Y. -- If you listen to horsemen during the Triple Crown chase year after year, they talk as if a special racehorse becomes a champion not only because of how fast he runs, but also because of who he is.
So what makes California Chrome a special racehorse and a champion, instead of just a horse with a great backstory? Co-owner Steve Coburn, the Wilford Brimley lookalike in the 10-gallon hat, fingers the trait that all of Chrome's handlers cite: "It's been amazing to watch his personality develop and watch his mind develop."
His mind? Really?
Angel Cordero Jr., the Hall of Fame jockey who won six Triple Crown races before becoming a rider's agent, nods and says Chrome's handlers are onto something: In a great racehorse, a beautiful mind can be a wonderful thing.
Cordero, standing trackside in a pelting rain at Belmont on Thursday morning -- not long after Chrome did a bit of schooling in the track's starting gate -- explains: "He's definitely a [physical] freak. You could see that way back when he showed up at the [Kentucky] Derby. But you can also see that he's a smart horse, too. And I definitely believe it helps a racehorse -- especially here -- to have a great mind. Because things tend to happen at the Belmont that don't happen at other places. Sometimes, there's confusion, because at the three-quarters pole here, there's still three-quarters of a mile to go, not a half-mile. Some of them have no idea where the wire is.
"But some horses -- some horses just know things," Cordero adds with a twinkle in his eye. "Some know when to go. Some go when you ask. And some" -- here Cordero laughs -- "they don't want to race much at all."
Chrome's parents were like that. His mother, an $8,000 broodmare named Love the Chase, was a nervous filly who couldn't keep weight on before her owners gave up racing her. Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has two long shots running in Saturday's Belmont, was one of the early trainers of Chrome's sire, Lucky Pulpit, and he told Sports Illustrated the horse "got wise to the ways of the racetrack. He basically didn't want to train anymore."
Chrome is the opposite. His connections rave that his temperament is a dream.
He's shown the tactical speed to win, whether he's running out front or coming from behind. But he's also demonstrated this beautiful, unflappable ability to soak in whatever is around him and calmly adjust on the fly. It doesn't matter if it's been the commotion in the paddock area on Derby day, or the challenge of one horse after another -- five in all -- trying to test him or rattle him into a premature charge in the Preakness, or contending with a startled possum that went shambling across the Belmont track the other day as Chrome was out galloping.
Chrome saw it, all right, and didn't spook -- he just kept on rolling.
"He's chill," co-trainer Allan Sherman has said.
"He's just really laid-back, really mellow," says jockey Victor Espinoza, who has ridden Chrome to six straight wins. "He lets me be the boss, and he does whatever I ask."
"I call him 'Vogue,'" exercise rider Willie Delgado says.
"Because sometimes I swear he has part human brains, and sometimes I wish he could talk," Delgado explains with a laugh. "Like the other day, we were coming off the track here and he was walking pretty fast back to the barn until he heard click-click-click-click of all the cameras. I noticed he started to slow down. His ears pricked up. Then, he actually just stopped. He turned his head slightly toward all the cameras. Then, he stood there for a few seconds before moving on. And I was like, 'Did you really just do what I thought you did?' He actually struck a pose! I told him, 'I can't believe you just did that.'"
It's good that Chrome likes the attention, because it's not going away. A crowd of 100,000-plus might show up Saturday.
It's also good that physically -- not just mentally -- Chrome so far seems up to the rigors of the Triple Crown chase.
Chrome's trainers were thrilled over the weekend to find he actually gained an inch of girth since the Preakness despite the grind of facing his third major race in five weeks. "Is that right? An inch?" Cordero says.
Any worries about how Chrome will take to his first 1½-mile race or the layout of the track? Delgado says, "I've never been around a horse this smart. By the second day we were out galloping, he figured out where we were. By the third day he was already back to his normal routine of where to turn on his [finishing] speed and ran the whole last half-mile to the wire."
Nobody is discounting the chance of a fresher horse taking Chrome down in the Belmont, but Chrome's last serious workout Saturday was so electrifying it was the talk of the track.
The praise was so effusive that Cordero says he went online to check out the video.
Co-trainer Art Sherman, Allan's dad, abandoned his usual caution and flatly predicted Chrome is going to win Saturday's race.
Even Pletcher concedes that whomever aspires to upset Chrome is going to have to hope their horse runs the race of his life and that Chrome has a little bit of an off day. It'll have to be both.
"A lot of Belmonts are lost because of mistakes," Cordero says. "But they've done a beautiful job with him. They really have."
California Chrome, who is just one race and a mile and a half from immortality, shows no signs of breaking yet.
It's not just how he runs. It's who he is.
2hSam Khan Jr.