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.