This goes back to my youth. To the very young version of me, glued to the television in the family room, having been informed by my father that I may well be witnessing history in the making. This goes back to shivers running up the spine and the shedding of a few inexplicable tears.
This Saturday, at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, California Chrome -- impressive victor in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness -- will attempt to win the 146th Belmont Stakes and end horse racing's 36-year drought by becoming only the 12th horse in the industry's long and luminous history to capture the coveted Triple Crown.
The California-bred chestnut colt with the white streak on his face -- markings known in horse circles as "chrome" -- has looked impressive, if not unbeatable, in training this week. But this is by no means a sure thing.
This is horse racing, where all is fickle and anything can (and often does) go awry. And this is a Triple Crown bid: 22 horses have won the Crown's first two legs, only to come up short on the third. Forget that California Chrome enters the race as the favorite. When you consider Triple Crown history, he remains a long shot. Oh, and the last time a Cali-bred horse won the Belmont was 1903.
The Belmont is indeed a nasty piece of business, a rude reality, a dream crusher. It's an epic, unforgiving race (at 2.4-kms., the longest of racing's three jewels). And, of course, it's the final stop on a grueling schedule -- three races in just five week, allowing precious little time for rejuvenation -- that defeats most of these three-year-olds long before Triple Crown dreams can even break out of the gate.
As if California Chrome needs any added pressure: the entire industry needs him to succeed. The steady decline over recent years in the sport's fortunes has been attributed to the Triple Crown drought and a dearth of imagination-capturing, marque talent. Granted, assorted other factors are certainly in play -- even if Chrome succeeds, the industry's pervasive problems will not suddenly vanish. Still, it wouldn't hurt...
The sport's last major drought came to a stunning end (after 25 long years) in 1973 with Secretariat, who'd won the Derby -- with a track-record time that still stands -- and the Preakness. And it was his bid for immortality that found the younger version of me glued to the TV, watching one of the most jaw-dropping performances in sporting history as the Super Horse almost effortlessly pulled away from the field at the Belmont and won by an astonishing... 31 lengths. Did I mention the shivers up the spine, the inexplicable tears?
The 1970s saw two more Triple Crown winners: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Proving, when it rains, it pours. As a kid I didn't even bother to wish for a Triple Crown winner; rather, I just came to expect one. Alas, all expectations died in the drought. Since Affirmed, 11 horses have entered the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. None have succeeded.
Still, a guy can hope. Hope that California Chrome's Cinderella story didn't peak at the Preakness. And that, come Saturday, there will be shivers running up the spine and the shedding of a few inexplicable tears.