Jockey Stewart Elliott knew early on in the 2004 Belmont Stakes that unbeaten Smarty Jones, attempting to become Thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown winner since 1978, was in trouble.
"He was too sharp for the race to go a mile and a half," Elliott said recently. "He just got too aggressive. I knew on the first turn, it wasn't going to work."
Even so, Smarty Jones looked like the winner at the top of the stretch, until long-shot Birdstone ran him down late for a one-length victory.
It has been 36 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become racing's 11th and last Triple Crown winner. But Elliott said he thinks California Chrome has the traits to win Saturday's 1½-mile Belmont — something the last 12 horses who won the Derby and Preakness failed to do.
Like Smarty Jones, California Chrome has a lot of speed but doesn't have to take the early lead to be successful. But California Chrome has another advantage: He chills.
"Smarty tried to go a mile and a half almost all out," Elliott said. "I'm trying to slow him down, standing up on him, and he's fighting me, raring to go," he said. "When they don't relax, they wear themselves out. But it looks like California Chrome will settle perfect wherever Victor (Espinoza) wants him to."
For the next six days, the racing world will debate whether California Chrome can pull off what some truly great horses, including Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence and Alysheba, couldn't get done in New York.
Jockey Gary Stevens has been both a Triple Crown loser and a Triple Crown spoiler, having lost the 1997 Belmont on Silver Charm to Touch Gold and having beaten Real Quiet by a nose with Victory Gallop a year later. He is a huge California Chrome fan.
"Victor is able to get him in and out of spots so quickly," Stevens said. "The thing I'm seeing about California Chrome that I haven't seen in a horse in a long time is coming off the turn in every one of his races this year, he's had instant separation from the field at the head of the stretch."
Both 1997 and '98 featured strong crops of 3-year-olds. Touch Gold might have been unlucky not to win the Preakness after stumbling badly out of the gate. And Victory Gallop was second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown before winning the Belmont.
There is no such sense this year of a horse that has been knocking at the door and might bust through to spoil California Chrome's parade. In fact, the Derby season was marked by a slew of prominent defections.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose 14 wins in Triple Crown races is a record, has long said that the best recipe for a Triple Crown is a superior horse in a year of ordinary competition.
But sometimes the toll taken on a horse by an arduous Derby prep season, the Derby itself and the Preakness two weeks later isn't apparent until the top of the Belmont stretch.
With Commendable in 2000, Lukas was the first trainer to win with a Derby horse who did not race again until the Belmont. Today that's the blueprint for Belmont success, having happened seven times, including last year with Palace Malice, the Derby's 12th-place finisher.
Only twice since 2000 has the Belmont winner competed in all three Triple Crown races, the last being Afleet Alex in 2005.
"In California Chrome's favor is his efficiency of motion, his professionalism," Lukas said.
Elliott Walden trained Victory Gallop and now, as president and racing manager of WinStar Farm near Versailles, Ky., he will try to pull the upset Saturday with Commissioner.
"The big thing is the way he's dominated his competition," Walden said of California Chrome. "He basically looks like the winner at every step. Having said that, you could have said the same thing about Big Brown."
The distance remains perhaps the biggest variable. Elliott Walden, president of Winstar Farms, who will try to pull the upset Saturday with Commissioner, says California Chrome has a pedigree to handle 1½ miles.
"The fact that you have a horse that is modestly bred on the front end — meaning his mother and father — if you go back in his pedigree, he has some interesting characteristics: You have A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew, Sir Ivor. He has some mile-and-a-half depth."
Steve Cauthen, the Kentuckian who rode Affirmed, thinks it might not matter. "He looks just like a freak horse," he said. "He can probably do things that are beyond his breeding."
Jerry Bailey, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who is an NBC analyst, was glad to hear that Espinoza arrived in New York on Friday and was going to ride at Belmont before this Saturday.
According to a chart on bloodhorse.com, 51% (4,040 feet) of the Belmont Stakes is run on the turns, compared with 39% (2,554.5 feet) for the Derby and 42% (2,654) for the Preakness.
"It's just ingrained in you, when you ride on a mile track, when you get to that far turn, 'OK, let's pick it up a bit,'" Bailey said.
"You have to be very aware of how far into the turn you are. Are you just going in? Are you still in the middle? Past the halfway point of the turn? They're not sharp; they're sweeping. So you lose the sense of turning, almost."
Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, said jockey Edgar Prado once told him that "the natural instinct is to move about an eighth of a mile too soon. There are people who do look like winners at the eighth pole, and they don't make it."
The connections of the last three Triple Crown winners (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed) will be at Belmont Park, rooting on California Chrome to join their ranks.
"This horse has the best chance; just something about him," said Patrice Wolfson, who with her late husband owned Affirmed. "He's unique. He just has something special. I think to win the Triple Crown, we want to see a horse that has that excitement, and he has that. Let's hope he shows it Saturday."