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Hours before the Triple try, Chrome fever sets in at Belmont Stakes

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Chrome craziness set in at Belmont Park Saturday as the hours ticked down ahead of the horse's bid to end racing's 36-year Triple Crown drought.

California Chrome, the chestnut colt with four white feet and a modest pedigree, was on the verge of making history or becoming just another miss. The track was expecting more than 100,000 people to be there when the race begins at 6:52 p.m. EDT.

Fans had already jammed the grandstand by midday. Purple nasal strips emblazoned with California Chrome's name were being sold to fans two for $5. The sales were a nod to the horse's bid to get permission to wear the strips to open up his nasal passages in the Triple Crown's third and final leg.

California Chrome owner Steve Coburn signed hats, posters and programs tossed to him in his box seat. Fans also snapped up free posters that read "Triple Chrome."

It's been a smooth run so far for California Chrome through the first two legs of the Triple Crown. His backstory — owned by a couple of working stiffs who spent $8,000 on a mare they bred to a stallion for $2,500 — earned him a legion of fans who loved to cheer for the underdog.

His owners were called "dumb asses" by a trainer for buying a mare who gave no indication that she could produce a standout offspring who could run fast. California Chrome parlayed trouble-free trips in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness into victories, setting the stage for a possible sweep.

The 1 1/2-mile Belmont, known as "The Test of a Champion," is the longest of the three races in the series. And, in many respects, the cruelest.

Only 11 horses have swept the three races, Affirmed the most recent in 1978. Since then, 12 horses have captured the first two legs without completing the equine hat trick.

There is a quiet confidence in the California Chrome camp that they possess the long-awaited Triple Crown champion.

"The horse is doing great, I couldn't ask anything more from him," said Alan Sherman, the assistant trainer to his father Art Sherman. "I'm looking forward to the race. I think if he runs his race, he's going to be pretty solid."

About 5:30 a.m., California Chrome hit the track to jog around the sprawling oval, stretching his legs before returning to his stall for the long wait until the Belmont was run in the late afternoon.

By all outward indications, Chrome's camp has every reason to feel confident. Since the Preakness, California Chrome has not missed a beat. His one workout was terrific, the morning gallops strong and steady, the appetite hardy.

California Chrome will face 10 rivals around "Big Sandy," Belmont's deep and often tiring track.

"I feel more confident coming into this race than I did any race," said Art Sherman, who at 77 is overseeing the best horse of his career. "I'm getting pumped up."

The Belmont could be a redemptive moment for jockey Victor Espinoza, who saw his bid for a Triple Crown aboard War Emblem end in defeat at the 2002 Belmont after a stumble at the start.

"It has to be a super horse to win that," Espinoza said.

Those looking to play spoiler include Commanding Curve. He rallied from 18th in the Kentucky Derby for finish second, only 1 3/4-length behind California Chrome.

Commanding Curve skipped the Preakness, getting an additional two weeks of rest for the Belmont. He is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a partnership headed by Terry Finley.

While everyone wants to win, deep down most wouldn't be too upset seeing a Triple Crown winner.

"Sure, we'd love to win," Finley said. "We're like most of the other connections, we want California Chrome to win if we don't."

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