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Hopes Run High as California Chrome Takes Aim at Triple Crown History

NEW YORK (CNN) — Will he become Triple Chrome?

On a warm and sunny Saturday in Elmont, New York, California Chrome will attempt to the win the elusive Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing at the Belmont Stakes.

california-chrome

Assistant trainer Alan Sherman walks Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome after a workout in preparation for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2014 in Elmont, New York. (Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

In the 134 years the grueling series of races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds have all been contested — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes — only 11 horses have won all three. Since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, a dozen horses have won the first two legs without pulling off the feat.

Fate has been especially unkind in recent years: Big Brown, a prohibitive favorite in 2008, failed to finish the Belmont Stakes, and I’ll Have Another failed to start in 2012, scratched due to an injury.

But even if the trend doesn’t seem to favor it, ESPN racing expert Hank Goldberg told CNN Saturday, “I think we’re going to see history.”

California Chrome is the favorite on the mile-and-a-half Belmont Park Race Track, where a crowd of 100,000 is expected. The daunting Triple Crown challenge squeezes three races into a five-week period, in an era when thoroughbreds normally run no more than once a month.

Adding to the rigor is the course itself: Belmont is a quarter-mile longer than Churchill Downs, home of the Derby, and five-sixteenths longer than Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is run.

In the Belmont, California Chrome will start in the second post position — the same gate that Secretariat shot out from in 1973 on track to Triple Crown glory and racing immortality.

“I expect him to win,” co-owner Steve Coburn said. “I really do.”

After the Preakness, New York racing officials decided to allow California Chrome to wear a breathing strip at Belmont Park.

The manufacturer of the strip has said it allows horses to breathe more freely and reduces the risk of bleeding in the lungs during heavy exertion. California Chrome has worn the strips during his last six wins.

“That nose strip really doesn’t mean a thing,” Goldberg said. “It helps people breathe a little easier. It helps people who have sleep disorders sleep better. It won’t affect him in the slightest.”

Mexican jockey Victor Espinoza, who is unbeaten on board the colt, is getting his second chance to win the Triple Crown. In 2002, he was riding War Emblem, but his mount stumbled out of the gate and nearly unseated Espinoza. After that, Espinoza said, “my chance goes to the toilet.”

Espinoza has been racing at Belmont all week. He threw the first pitch at a game at Yankee Stadium, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman.”

He rode in two races Saturday, winning neither. He is hopeful the race that matters most turns out differently.

“Very few horses go in all three races and there are a lot of good horses in the field on Saturday that will be fresher,” Espinoza told CNN. “That’s why it’s so, so tough.”

California Chrome’s biggest threats are considered to be Tonalist, winner of the Peter Pan Stakes; Preakness runner-up Ride on Curlin; and Commanding Curve, No.2 in the Derby and apparently refreshed after his last race.

“This horse never seems to have a bad day, whether he’s working out or running when it counts,” Goldberg said of California Chrome. “The only thing that can do him in is if they turn the temperature up 20 degrees and he cramps up like LeBron James and that isn’t likely.”

Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds and owner of Commanding Curve, second-place finisher at the Derby, said “all eyes will be on California Chrome.”

“He’s in a tough spot because all of the other riders will see the ‘X’ on his back,” Finley said. “He’s a star. He’s carried himself really well since he’s been up here at Belmont. We’re all afraid of him and, if California Chrome has a really good day, we’re all running for second. But I hope he doesn’t.”

The Belmont Stakes prize is about $800,000 to the winner. California Chrome stands to win more than $3 million in total purses from the three races and, on top of that, endorsement deals and a jackpot in future breeding rights.

The beleaguered racing industry, battered for decades by gambling competition and changing entertainment tastes, also stands to benefit.

“If California Chrome wins,” said Christopher Kay, CEO of the New York Racing Association, “I think it will bring a whole new generation of fans to this great sport.”

Matt Majendie and CNN’s Richard Roth and Laura Dolan contributed to this report.