By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
City News Service
With just over a week to go before a race that could make Orange County-based California Chrome the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, the thoroughbred's trainer said today that he's more confident coming up to the Belmont Stakes than he has been with any other race.
"I really think he's the real McCoy and I think you're going to see a champion," trainer Art Sherman said in a conference call with reporters from his base at the Los Alamitos Race Course.
"I feel more confident, I think, coming into this race, than I did any other race," Sherman said of the upcoming June 7 race that's expected to draw a huge crowd in New York.
California Chrome -- a California-bred colt with a modest pedigree -- is expected to be an overwhelming favorite in the Belmont after his wins in the Santa Anita Derby and the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
If he wins the Belmont, California Chrome would be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Sherman noted that the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont is a "whole new ball game," but said he knows his horse is "coming into this race great."
"I feel good about this race coming up. He's coming into it perfect," he said.
Sherman said the 3-year-old flashy chestnut with a large white blaze -- who has a legion of followers dubbed "Chromies" -- "doesn't want any horse passing him."
"He's done about everything I could imagine him doing and he's got such a fan base in California, it's unbelievable, and he's the people's horse," Sherman said. "It's unbelievable for me ... I've got to pinch myself every once in a while and say, 'Wow, what a run this has been!"'
Jimmy Jerkens, who trains the fourth-place Kentucky Derby finisher Wicked Strong, said of California Chrome, "It'll take a combination of things to beat him. That's for sure."
"One of our horses will have to run the race of their lives and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker," Jerkens said.
Billy Gowan, who trains the Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin, called California Chrome "a tough horse," but noted that Ride On Curlin has gotten "closer to California Chrome than anybody else has this year."
He said he wouldn't feel bad at all if his trainee beats California Chrome.
"If I can do it in the Belmont, I wouldn't be too upset ... I'd be elated to tell you the truth," Gowan said.
Dallas Stewart, who trains Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, said he was "wrong" when he dismissed California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby.
Sherman said he believes "a lot of people have a lot more respect" for California Chrome than they did going into the Kentucky Derby.
"I know that he's made a lot of guys look some place else to run," Sherman said.