ELMONT, N.Y. – It’s so close now, they can feel it.
“I know it’s starting to get real, when I start to get heartburn,” Willie Delgado said.
The exercise rider was leaning on a white wooden barrier outside Belmont Park’s busiest barn on Friday morning, the day before the 146th Belmont Stakes.
Just around dinner time Saturday, California Chrome will try to turn his owners’ modest $10,000 investment into Triple Crown immortality.
Has the heartburn started?
“Oh, yeah,” Delgado said. “Oh, yeah.”
Affirmed was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in succession. That was 1978. It’s been a long and frustrating wait since.
Eleven horses captured the first two Triple Crown races only to fall short in the third. Two years ago, the 12th, I’ll Have Another, scratched before reaching the gate.
No one expects such a pre-race calamity this time. Good vibrations rule. Chrome is rested, fit and 30 pounds heavier than when he won the Derby. He turned heads last Saturday with a powerful work over the sandy Belmont surface, covering a half-mile in 47.69 seconds and 5 furlongs in 59.93.
“He hated Churchill,” Delgado said. “Pimlico, he liked. This track, he loves it. He steps over it like nothing.”
“He’s trained very forward the whole time,” assistant trainer Alan Sherman said Friday. “He couldn’t be better.”
Chrome is king in New York. While the faces of the franchise, trainer Art Sherman and co-owner Steve Coburn, were in Manhattan as guests on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” a crowd gathered Friday outside Barn 26, where local trainer James Toner loaned the Shermans stall space.
Brian Beach, agent for jockey Victor Espinoza, handed out coffee. In his father’s absence, Alan Sherman, wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, briefed the media and stood for television interviews. Delgado, wearing a blue Skechers hat as a nod to Chrome’s new sponsor, posed for pictures.
“The last two days it has gone from 10 to 15 people at the barn to a lot of people at the barn,” Delgado said. “The good thing is, it affects me more than the horse.”
“Nothing seems to bother him,” Alan Sherman said.
Distractions have their perks. Alan Sherman wanted to be Steve Cauthen growing up, and Thursday he met Patrice Jacobs Wolfson, whose late husband, Louis, owned Affirmed, whom Cauthen rode.
“She was a very nice lady,” Sherman said. “She wished us luck.”
Delgado has found a sort of fame that’s rare for an exercise rider.
“He’s taken me on a ride I never thought I’d get, I can tell you that,” said Delgado, whose brother Alberto was Chrome’s jockey in five of his first six races before being replaced by Espinoza. “To me, he’s just like my buddy, a buddy that bites pretty hard.”
Chrome’s detractors can be biting, as well. They reference the 36-year Triple Crown drought. They tout the Belmont’s well-rested challengers. They harp on Chrome’s supposedly inferior California breeding and his supposedly unlucky four white feet.
“I think they’ll have a show about him on ‘Mythbusters,’ ” Delgado said, “because that’s what it is, a myth.”
Someone asked Delgado whether he might have trouble sleeping Friday night.
“Not me,” Delgado said. “Six beers and I pass out.”
Chrome will jog at 5:30 Saturday morning. Alan Sherman will remain at the barn all day because that’s what he does for the family business.
After all, 77-year-old Art Sherman has been in the game 60 years. Alan’s mother, Faye, worked 30 years in the Bay Meadows gift shop. Alan’s older brother, 51-year-old Steve, is a trainer in northern California.
Alan is 45. After riding as a jockey from 1986 to ’89, he worked for the legendary Charlie Whittingham before joining his father in 1991.
He has been embedded with Chrome every step.
“If he runs his race,” Sherman said, “I think he’ll be pretty solid.”
“When it gets to this point,” Delgado said, “it’s all about the horse and the man upstairs.”
Come Saturday night, one way the other, it will be over.
“I’m ready to go home,” Alan Sherman said. “It’s been six weeks on the road.”
He is anxious to see his new grandson. His daughter, Brianne, gave birth to a boy, Logan, this week. Then Alan is going fishing.
“Alaska,” he said. “We go every year.”
First, California Chrome will try to bust another myth: that modern-day horses can’t win the Triple Crown.
“We’re good,” Alan Sherman said.
“Excited,” he said.