ELMONT, N.Y. – The Preakness Stakes was barely official when "Triple Chrome" buttons appeared.
By 7 p.m. ET Saturday we will know if California Chrome is the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and only the 12th ever to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Or will the New York tabloids have to dust off their "Triple Frown" banner headline?
The past 12 horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to pull off the revered hat trick, with 11 losing and I'll Have Another injured the day before the 2012 Belmont.
Trainer Art Sherman has said that he's more confident going into the 1 1/2-mile Belmont than before either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. And he was plenty confident then, albeit not going as far as his co-owner, Steve Coburn, in guaranteeing victory.
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"He's a good horse, just needs to have a good trip and I really think you'll see the next Triple Crown winner," Sherman said as California Chrome tries to win a seventh straight race. "… He just might be that extra special horse that you need."
All the same, Sherman views the Belmont as playing with house money.
And the house will be bursting at the seams Saturday, though it might be pushing it to topple the record attendance of 120,139 for the 2004 Belmont featuring unbeaten Smarty Jones from nearby Philadelphia and $2 general admission.
"He's done everything that I ever could want a horse to do – and more," Sherman said. "Once you get the Derby, it's something you never forget. When they write that horse's name on the top of that ledger there, with all the superstars, I'm just so elated that I'll be there and he'll be in the Derby Museum next year."
One sweep that should occur is ideal weather for each Triple Crown race this year. The forecast calls for sunshine and a high of 84 that should dip to the mid-70s by the scheduled 6:52 p.m. post.
There never has been a more important New York racing program, outside the Breeders' Cup. And some would argue that this 12-race, 10-stakes and $8 million card – featuring six Grade I races, including 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice in the Metropolitan Mile -- surpasses even the Breeders' Cup championship days because of California Chrome's Triple Crown bid.
Billy Gowan, the Louisville-based trainer of Ride On Curlin, was asked how he'd handle the New York booing should his Derby seventh-place finisher and Preakness runner-up beat California Chrome.
"I'd love to get booed in New York; they're the best boo-ers in the world," Gowan said with a laugh. "They asked me about being the spoiler. I said, 'They spoiled my Derby and Preakness, I might as well spoil the Belmont.'"
More seriously, he said, "I think I have the horse to do it."
If California Chrome has history to make, he also has history to buck.
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"He's obviously the horse to beat," said Louisville's Dale Romans, trainer of Medal Count, the Derby eighth-place finisher. "But go back in history, there have been a lot of them the last 36 years who looked like they were the horse to beat and didn't get it done."
Seven Belmont winners since 2000 came out of the Derby and skipped the Preakness. Medal Count, Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, fourth-place Wicked Strong and fifth-place Samraat seek to continue that trend.
No Triple Crown winner has had to beat more than seven rivals in the Belmont. California Chrome faces 10.
Every Triple Crown winner to date ran at Belmont Park as a 2-year-old. Chrome never stepped outside California until coming to Louisville. And the last Derby winner to take the Belmont was Thunder Gulch in 1995; the last Preakness winner Afleet Alex in 2005.
"He's got a heavier load on his back besides the two (classic) wins coming into the race," said Rick Violette, Samraat's trainer. "He's a very, very good horse. If he's a great horse, we're running for second."
And then there's the 1 1/2 -mile distance, the farthest most of these horses will ever race.
"I think the mile and a half is the key to the race, and the key to your chance of beating him, if you have a horse who will just stay a little longer than he will," said two-time Belmont winner Todd Pletcher, who will saddle long-shots Commissioner and Matterhorn.
Most rival trainers suggest that to win, their horse will have to run the race of its life, combined with California Chrome turning in a subpar performance.
But jockey Rajiv Maragh believes Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong – the Belmont's 6-1 second choice -- can beat California Chrome straight up.
The Jimmy Jerkens-trained Wicked Strong, breaking from post 18 in the Derby, was mired in traffic much of the way, breaking free late to finish fourth, losing by a total of 5 3/4 lengths.
"I think the Belmont is his day for redemption," Maragh said. "We get more distance, which is more to his liking. He's coming into his own right now, is on top of his game and we expect a winning performance."
If the Derby and Preakness fell short of their promise to have a resolute pace, the tactical question of the Belmont is what speed is there in the Belmont besides California Chrome?
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However, several trainers have suggested that, especially with the Belmont's slower pace, their horses won't be far off of California Chrome, who breaks from post 2.
Samraat, Ride on Curlin, Commissioner, General a Rod, Peter Pan winner Tonalist and Medal Count all have shown the ability to be near the lead.
"It will be interesting to see how Victor rides him," said Elliott Walden, president of Commissioner's owner, WinStar Farm. "Will he ride him to save him? Or does he ride him to try to put the field away?"
Others get more pedigree help at the distance than California Chrome. For instance, Commissioner is a son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy and out of a mare by Touch Gold, who spoiled Silver Charm's 1997 Triple Crown bid.
Ride On Curlin is a son of 2007 Belmont runner-up Curlin, the sire of 2013 winner Palace Malice. General a Rod is by Roman Ruler, sire of 2011 Belmont winner Ruler On Ice. Commanding Curve's dad is the A.P. Indy sire Master Command, while Medal Count's daddy was the stamina-laden Dynaformer.
General a Rod, one of four Louisville-based horses, joins California Chrome and Ride On Curlin as the only horses to compete in all three Triple Crown races.
"We have a lot of confidence going into this race," said Mike Maker, General a Rod's trainer. "I'd love to be the spoiler, that's for sure."
Jennie Rees also works for The (Louisville) Courier Journal. She can be contacted at 502-582-4042. Follow her on Twitter @CJ_Jennie, Facebook.com/CJJennie