Thursday morning was a gloomy one at Belmont Park, but that didn't stop hordes of media from following California Chrome's every move. Even as the colt got a bath in the rain, photographers piled on top of each other and squatted in the mud to get the perfect shot of the Triple Crown hopeful.
This is both the allure and the danger of racing's greatest prize.
California Chrome may be "just" a horse, but he is dictating the hopes, dreams and schedules of a lot of people right now. Happily, because he is a horse, he has no idea how much pressure is being put on him, but his connections do.
Like most everyone interested in racing, I would love to see California Chrome win on Saturday. I also think he has a real chance of doing so. However, expecting a fairy-tale ending in horse racing is a dangerous way to go.
So, should California Chrome lose, it is important to remember one thing: Never blame the horse.
Sure, no matter what happens in the Belmont Stakes, the race will be analyzed almost beyond the point of recognition. Theories on why he won or why he lost will abound. That is normal.
However, when expectations have been pushed to extreme levels, one of the inevitable results is that some blame the horses if something goes wrong. Some will blame the losers for not being good enough to win, while others will blame the winners for merely existing.
For those who don't remember, one of the most awkward moments in sports happened a decade ago when Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown. Like California Chrome, he captured the public's imagination and was being touted as the horse that could finally end the dry spell.
It didn't happen. Instead, the beloved runner was defeated by a small-in-stature but big-on-talent runner named Birdstone. After the race, Birdstone's connections actually apologized in the winner's circle for defeating Smarty Jones.
To this day, although he was a three-time Grade 1 winner during his career and went on to sire Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, to many Birdstone is still "that horse" who denied Smarty Jones.
It is easy to place blame on a horse who defeats a favorite runner. I know this personally. Due to my affection for Silver Charm, if I am torn between two horses in a race and see that one has Touch Gold in his or her pedigree, I will instantly cheer for the other horse. That is because Touch Gold served as Silver Charm's Birdstone in the Triple Crown run of 1997, and I hated him for it.
Years later, I was discussing that Belmont with a friend of mine who has forgotten more about the industry than most will ever know. He looked me in the eye and said, "Duckworth, I am disappointed in you. You should never blame the horse."
Incidentally, this spring, I was complaining about a horse that had cost me a bet, and another wise friend reminded me again of that simple truth. Although the incidents happened years apart and were very much independent of each other, they both shamed me, because my friends were right.
What we all have to remember is that these athletes run because that is what they were bred to do, but also because we ask them to. Win, lose or draw, California Chrome will go out on Saturday and do his best because that is what is in his blood. The same goes for every horse who will enter that starting gate with him.
A horse doesn't choose his owners or his pedigree. He doesn't get to choose his trainer or the races he runs in. Sometimes a horse's best isn't good enough. Sometimes the wrong horse wins. Sometimes a bet doesn't come in. Sometimes the best horse is owned by the worst people. Sometimes it just isn't meant to be.
Happily, in the case of California Chrome, by and large he is surrounded by likable, genuine people, and he has proved himself an honest runner. For that, we should all be thankful. The stars aligned for the horse to take us all on this five-week journey, and we owe him a debt of gratitude as a result.
Hopefully on Saturday, we will all be toasting California Chrome for becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, but if not, don't let all the good will and joy that has been building upon itself these past few days and weeks simply disappear.
The next time a horse you want to win loses, blame the fickle racing gods or the weather or human error or simple bad luck, but never, ever blame the horse. He or she is just doing what they were born to do to the best of their ability, and it is unfair to expect anything more.
Never is that more true than when a horse steps onto the track at Belmont Park with the Triple Crown on the line. If California Chrome wins, he will receive a hero's ovation as he makes his way to the winner's circle, but I would argue that he should receive one no matter what.