ELMONT, N.Y. -- If you listen to horsemen during the Triple Crown chase year after year, they talk as if a special racehorse becomes a champion not only because of how fast he runs, but also because of who he is.
So what makes California Chrome a special racehorse and a champion, instead of just a horse with a great backstory? Co-owner Steve Coburn, the Wilford Brimley lookalike in the 10-gallon hat, fingers the trait that all of Chrome's handlers cite: "It's been amazing to watch his personality develop and watch his mind develop."
His mind? Really?
Angel Cordero Jr., the Hall of Fame jockey who won six Triple Crown races before becoming a rider's agent, nods and says Chrome's handlers are onto something: In a great racehorse, a beautiful mind can be a wonderful thing.
Cordero, standing trackside in a pelting rain at Belmont on Thursday morning -- not long after Chrome did a bit of schooling in the track's starting gate -- explains: "He's definitely a [physical] freak. You could see that way back when he showed up at the [Kentucky] Derby. But you can also see that he's a smart horse, too. And I definitely believe it helps a racehorse -- especially here -- to have a great mind. Because things tend to happen at the Belmont that don't happen at other places. Sometimes, there's confusion, because at the three-quarters pole here, there's still three-quarters of a mile to go, not a half-mile. Some of them have no idea where the wire is.
"But some horses -- some horses just know things," Cordero adds with a twinkle in his eye. "Some know when to go. Some go when you ask. And some" -- here Cordero laughs -- "they don't want to race much at all."
Chrome's parents were like that. His mother, an $8,000 broodmare named Love the Chase, was a nervous filly who couldn't keep weight on before her owners gave up racing her. Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has two long shots running in Saturday's Belmont, was one of the early trainers of Chrome's sire, Lucky Pulpit, and he told Sports Illustrated the horse "got wise to the ways of the racetrack. He basically didn't want to train anymore."
Chrome is the opposite. His connections rave that his temperament is a dream.
He's shown the tactical speed to win, whether he's running out front or coming from behind. But he's also demonstrated this beautiful, unflappable ability to soak in whatever is around him and calmly adjust on the fly. It doesn't matter if it's been the commotion in the paddock area on Derby day, or the challenge of one horse after another -- five in all -- trying to test him or rattle him into a premature charge in the Preakness, or contending with a startled possum that went shambling across the Belmont track the other day as Chrome was out galloping.
Chrome saw it, all right, and didn't spook -- he just kept on rolling.
"He's chill," co-trainer Allan Sherman has said.
"He's just really laid-back, really mellow," says jockey Victor Espinoza, who has ridden Chrome to six straight wins. "He lets me be the boss, and he does whatever I ask."
"I call him 'Vogue,'" exercise rider Willie Delgado says.