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By Gene Kershner

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

BALTIMORE — Act One for California Chrome was two weeks ago in Louisville. The second act played out perfectly late Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course before a record 123,469 sun-splashed fans. How appropriate that the grand finale will be on racing’s biggest stage, a few short miles from Broadway.

For the first time since 2008, a horse race in Elmont will be the site for an attempt at thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. It’s been 36 years since Affirmed defeated his archrival Alydar in 1978 at storied Belmont Park to claim racing’s 11th Triple Crown.

Amazingly, in the 1970s racing had three Triple Crown winners as Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977) joined Affirmed on that elite list of champions. The Belmont Stakes is known as the Test of a Champion and it will be just that for California Chrome, who will try to make his mark on racing history with a win at the mile and a half distance.

The curtain will go up in three weeks on June 7 at the track affectionately known as Big Sandy, where the third and most difficult leg of the Triple Crown awaits the Derby and Preakness winner. While Chrome, a winner of his last six races, looked no worse for the wear on the track after the race, the grueling Triple Crown series that features three races in five weeks can take its toll on even the best horse.

Late Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, he made his patented move much earlier than he did at Churchill Downs on the far turn. Jockey Victor Espinoza stepped on the gas and California Chrome put away the early pace setter Pablo Del Monte at the three-eighths pole and held off a late rally by Ride On Curlin to win by 1ø lengths.

It wasn’t that easy of a race if you asked Espinoza, who rode him brilliantly. “I had to start early because the outside horse was pushing me,” Espinoza said. “I thought I had the perfect position, but when the outside horse attacked me, I had to open it up at that point.”

Trainer Art Sherman, who was the exercise rider on 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, was emotional after watching his horse complete the sweep of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. “Oh, you’ve got to have a tear. I’ve got my whole family here. We worked hard all year and Victor rode him perfect. It’s a dream for any trainer to do this,” said the 77-year-old conditioner.

Ride On Curlin’s jockey, Joel Rosario, just shook his head in disbelief when discussing his rival after the race. “It looked like I had a chance for a second, but California Chrome just took off again; he’s just a very good horse,” Rosario said. Trainer Billy Gowan decided to replace Calvin Borel in the irons with Rosario on Ride On Curlin and he was able to get a much better trip than he did at Churchill Downs, staying closer to the pace than Borel did in Louisville.

Gowan was proud of his horse’s second-place finish and hinted that he may be the horse with the advantage in New York when the race stretches out to a mile and a half. “He came running awful hard; you have to give a lot of credit to California Chrome, he’s a great horse,” Gowan said. “My horse ran super, though. If I couldn’t win, I wanted Chrome to win.”

Similar to Chrome’s connections, Ride On Curlin’s owners had offers to sell him. “We could’ve sold him, but I’m sure glad we’re here today,” said Gowan who promised he’d bring his horse to New York if he came out of the race healthy. “At the eighth pole I knew Chrome didn’t look like he was backing up any. Maybe next time going a mile and a half we can get him.”

The lightly raced Social Inclusion finished third with Woodbine-based jockey Luis Contreras in the irons. Contreras, like Rosario, thought his horse had a chance when he was just a head behind Chrome at the quarter pole. “I got a perfect trip, I was right behind California Chrome, I tried to move on him, but he’s an amazing horse,” Contreras said.

The journey now becomes much more difficult for California Chrome, who may be the most popular horse to vie for the Triple Crown since Smarty Jones in 2004 before a record-setting Belmont crowd of 120,139. California Chrome’s co-owner Steve Coburn proclaimed him as “America’s horse” in the post-race interview and the media scrutiny will only intensify in the three weeks leading up to the final leg.

The question most will ask is “Can a son of Lucky Pulpit, a horse that never won a race over 5½ furlongs, win the longest race in the Triple Crown series?” That’s to be debated on a different day; for now he’s done everything that’s been expected of him and he’ll have a nation full of eyeballs on him in three weeks.

Not only will the distance question come into play, but the fatigue factor can be an issue as he will be facing fresh horses that skipped the Preakness to point at the Belmont. The New York Racing Association already has listed several Derby runners, including Commanding Curve, Danza, Intense Holiday, Samraat and Wicked Strong, as probable starters in the Belmont. Add to that list the talented Peter Pan winner Tonalist and the Todd Pletcher-trained Commissioner, and California Chrome will have some staunch competition to overcome in New York.

Coburn joked at the post-race press conference that he’s already had to promise to take his wife to a show when they hit the Big Apple. Fortunately, he’ll also be bringing the biggest show in town, the talented California Chrome, with him.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.