It’s going to be a “jockey’s race.”
That’s what the co-owner of the most famous horse of 2014 said here in Elmont, N.Y., Wednesday as he looked three days into the future toward the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, set to play out Saturday at this beautiful and historic racetrack on Long Island.
At the annual draw breakfast, held Wednesday to choose the 11 horses’ gate positions, I asked California Chrome’s co-owner, onetime Bakersfield resident Steve Coburn, what it would take to win. The race’s outcome is “going to be up to Victor,” he told me.
“Victor” — an appropriate name for Chrome’s winning jockey — is Victor Espinoza, an athletic spright of a man who has ridden this Coalinga-bred chesnut to searing victories in his last six races, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the first two pillars of the Triple Crown’s three pillars of fame and, some would say, equine immortality.
But make no mistake: Despite Coburn’s assertion that the outcome is now in the skilled hands of his jockey, Saturday’s race will be a full-fledged horse race with flying hooves, foaming sweat and a $1.5 million purse waiting at the finish line. And if the now-famous 3-year-old colt wins, he will become the first horse
in 36 years — the last was Affirmed in 1978 — to capture the sport’s most coveted and elusive prize.
At Wednesday’s event, attended by owners and trainers of several competing horses, California Chrome drew the No. 2 gate position, just off the inside rail.
“It’s a good post,” said Coburn, 61, who moved to Bakersfield from the Eastern Sierra town of Big Pine in 1969 and graduated from Foothill High in 1972.
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman, the son of Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, said the legendary Secretariat also wore the number 2 when he obliterated the rest of the field in the Belmont Stakes in 1973.
Espinoza, too, was upbeat.
“I like No. 2,” the jockey said. “I hope it is my lucky number.”
Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin know their horse is, as New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling said Wednesday, “on the precipice of greatness.”
But standing on a precipice, even in the midst of elation and celebration, can tax body and soul. And that stress was evident on Coburn’s otherwise country-friendly face, clearly tired beneath his ever-present cowboy hat.
“It’s sinking in pretty quick right now,” he said Wednesday. “Yeah, it’s been a tremendous ride, and it’s all because of this horse, and our trainer and his son, the assistant trainer — and the jockey, and especially the groomer. He takes pretty damned good care of this horse.
“But yeah, it’s all coming to the point. It’s all coming to the top of the pyramid right now,” he said.
And Coburn was off. Like a thundering field of powerful thoroughbreds, Coburn argued that his horse has something great — something that cannot be explained by mere genetics or by sinew and bone.
Jockey’s race or not, his horse is special. More than special. Cosmically, metaphysically, maybe even divinely special.
“He’s an amazing animal,” Coburn said. “He really, really is. I wish every horse owner out there could have a horse like this because he’s one in a bazillion.”
Yep. It’s going to be a horse race.