If California Chrome fades and fails Saturday, you might have to fish the Belmont's white carnations out of the East River. But that's not why this might be the most important Triple Crown event since Secretariat turned the Belmont Stakes into a panegyric on his greatness, or why it might even be the most important horse race since the Oklahoma land rush.
Nor is it the money that infuses this Belmont Stakes with significance, even though there's plenty on the line. Saturday's Belmont dangles $1.5 million in tantalizing purse money before its 11 competitors, and for California Chrome, the race could be worth millions more if it becomes the final jewel in his Triple Crown, complementing his gems from Kentucky and Maryland. A victory Saturday would push his earnings to $4.2 million and, even more, transform him into a celebrated sex symbol whose value as a stallion could be $20 million or more.
A flashy chestnut with four white socks and a charming collection of idiosyncrasies, California Chrome possesses a coruscating charisma. He brings to New York an unlikely story that has Disney-like appeal. With his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, and his humble jockey, Victor Espinoza, and his hard-working, every-man owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who describe themselves as the "Dumb Ass Partners," California Chrome represents not so much a dream as a fantasy that has come true. The last time a horse so popular raced in the Belmont, a multitude came out to see him -- a record crowd of 120,139 fans, filling every cranny of the old colossus of a racetrack with their presence, adulation and hopefulness. And, just as they did in 2004 for Smarty Jones, they'll fill it again Saturday, the lords and ladies, the revelers and stargazers, the professors and bridge-jumpers, all anticipating the coronation of California Chrome as the 12th Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport and hoping to connect, if only through a glimpse or an echo or a $2 ticket, with greatness.
But that's not all of it. Horse racing hasn't seen a horse sweep the Triple Crown series since Affirmed in 1978. He died in 2001. Seattle Slew, who swept the series in 1977, died in 2002. The sport hungers for another Triple Crown winner, just as it did in the early 1970s when Secretariat suddenly appeared, like Shane riding unannounced into the dolorous valley. Even more, horse racing desperately needs a Triple Crown winner, as many have suggested, and not just for his star-power or his ability to take the sport into the popular culture; it needs one for nourishment. It needs a Triple Crown winner to remind its fans that such an accomplishment remains possible and that in an age of billion-dollar teams and fabulously wealthy entrepreneurial athletes, this sport has a rare capacity for making virtue vivid.
Like its competitors' racing counter-clockwise, the sport often seems to be moving against time. It's a pastoral sport in a technological world. It celebrates the individual when the culture favors collectivity. And so horse racing might seem destined for obscurity. The handle, or money bet, at America's racetracks has declined 2 percent from a year ago, and it's down about 28 percent over the last decade. A Triple Crown winner won't change that, but he might bring together those who can.
Horse racing needs many things, it's true, uniform medication rules and racetrack operators with vision being high on a long list. The sport needs to replace strife with cooperation, captious opposition with impassioned support, self-serving greed with imaginative innovation. And horse racing desperately needs a Triple Crown winner who can bring all the diverse and contentious elements together for a celebratory moment when they all just might realize how special the sport is and how great it can be.
That's why this Belmont Stakes is the most important of horse races.