Buckle up, sports fans. It's time to get excited about horse racing again.
For only the third time in the last decade, Triple Crown hopes are alive heading into the Belmont Stakes. It's possible that in three weeks, the long wait for a new Triple Crown winner could finally be over.
On the surface, the Triple Crown formula is simple: Finish in first place in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in a five-week span during the spring and become a sports legend.
However, the execution is much trickier. Only 11 horses in history have won the elusive Triple Crown, and no horse has done it since 1978. That's a 36-year drought—one that has squeezed a lot of hope, popularity and prestige out of the sport of horse racing.
This year, however, the world is wrapped up in the Triple Crown race again, thanks to a rags-to-riches story spearheaded by a spectacular thoroughbred in California Chrome. The three-year-old colt has won six races in a row, and after a dominant victory at Churchill Downs and a speedy and tactically brilliant race at Pimlico, he heads to Belmont Park in three weeks with a chance at immortality.
The Belmont Stakes went from an afterthought to must-see TV in one minute, 54.84 seconds. That's the time it took California Chrome to jump out of the starting gate, gallop for 1 3⁄16 miles and cross the finish line.
In less than two minutes, the entire nation came down with Triple Crown fever.
Horse racing is a niche sport. Few outside of hardcore fans and a handful of dedicated journalists could name the winner of the Tampa Bay Derby or the Illinois Derby, and don't you dare ask casual sports fans what the difference between a Grade 1 and Grade 3 horse race is.
But the Triple Crown series transcends the sport and grabs the attention of the sports world, especially when a horse heads into the Belmont with a chance at the ultimate prize.
Sports are as much about stories and narratives as they are strategy, athleticism and chance. In horse racing, it can be particularly difficult for casual fans to become invested due to the complete overturn of horses from year to year.
If you haven't been paying attention to the races all season, which is the case for the majority of the population, then it's hard to stay interested. Unlike other individual sports, there's no Rafael Nadal winning year after year or Rory McIlroy on the brink of greatness. Every year is a brand new cast of characters.
But the Triple Crown is its own story, and the 36-year drought has become a saga in itself. Of course, it also helps that this year, the Hollywood-esque tale of California Chrome's unlikely rise to prominence has captivated the nation.
California Chrome was bred by rookie owners using two horses that cost $10,500 combined. The owners, Steve Coburn and Martin Perry, were mocked when they entered the business "after the groom for retired brood mare Love The Chase said anyone who bought that old girl was a 'dumb-ass,'" per Ed Zieralski of The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Instead of being offended or embarrassed, the two men called their partnership Dumb Ass Partners. When they received an offer to buy Chrome for $6 million, they turned it down.
Any horse would soar in popularity if it was going for the Triple Crown, but California Chrome's humble owners and lack of pedigree are great for a sport that is limited by outdated practices and lingo, suffocating elitism and corruption.
As reported by Tim Sullivan of USA Today, Coburn believes that California Chrome is America's horse now.
This is a nice horse. He loves people, he loves what he does and that's why he's America's horse. Because in my opinion this horse, what he's doing for two guys that work their butts off every day just to put beans and bacon on the table, this horse has given everybody else out there the incentive to say, 'You know what? We can do it, too.'
Still, as great as California Chrome is, the Triple Crown is a long way away. On Sunday morning, there were reports, including one from USA Today's Gary Mihoces, (h/t Time), that California Chrome might not even enter the Belmont Stakes if he isn't allowed to wear the nasal strips he's been wearing for the last six races in a row.
Horse racing is a sport with rules that differ state to state, and New York prohibits the nasal strip California Chrome has worn during his rise to prominence. The last horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another, also was barred from using a similar nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes—although it did not matter, as the horse withdrew from the race with a leg injury.
Even if California Chrome does compete, history certainly isn't on his side. There have been 12 horses who have won the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby since 1978, but none of them have been able to win No. 3.
The Belmont Stakes is the longest race in the Triple Crown series at 1 1/2 miles. Only three horses ran both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, so many of the Kentucky Derby challengers will reemerge at Belmont much fresher than California Chrome.
Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated delved into the cautious mindset of sporting fans as the buildup to Belmont begins.
It has been 36 long years since a horse last won the Triple Crown, when Affirmed outdueled Alydar in the Belmont, a drought so long that it has come to define its sport. So on June 7, California Chrome will run the Belmont Stakes, the 13th horse since Affirmed with a chance to close the Triple Crown deal. All the others have failed (and the most recent one, I'll Have Another, in 2012, was scratched on the day before the race and didn't even run). After his victory in Baltimore on Saturday, Chrome carried a question into the night, prodding a public wary by being burned too often.
Is this the one? The answer, for now is the same as always, hopeful yet cautious, excited yet defensive. A dream at arm's length. Maybe. Just maybe.
That "maybe" is far from a guarantee, but it's all sporting fans need. After all, the only thing a good story needs is the possibility of a happy ending.
In three weeks, millions of people around the world will watch the action at Belmont Park to see if a seemingly impossible feat can be achieved. There are obstacles in the way. There are competitors that will try to spoil the show. There are realistic doubts and plenty of logical reasons why the drought will continue for a 37th year.
But there's still hope that this year will be the year that the Triple Crown will be won again. That's reason enough to tune in.