Big crowd expected to watch California Chrome in Belmont Stakes at Turlock Turf Club

06/04/2014 6:54 PM

06/04/2014 6:54 PM

California Chrome has been taking the sports world by storm after winning the first two races of horse racing’s Triple Crown over the past five weeks.

But longtime horseplayer Gordon Sheppherd has had his eye on the 3-year-old colt since last summer.

“I noticed California Chrome racing at Del Mar last year,” said Sheppherd, of Turlock. “He finished second in a race. I thought he was a nice little California bred.”

That nice little California bred could make history Saturday at the Belmont Stakes. If he wins, he’ll be just the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

That 36-year gap without a Triple Crown winner has made horse racing fans like Sheppherd – and many other regulars at the Turlock Turf Club – hoping to see history made again.

Sheppherd is confident the California bred with the humble breeding and movie-ready story line will do it.

“He’s going to win,” Sheppherd said. “I’ve watched all the greats, like Secretariat in 1973, and he’s going to win. “

The colt’s humble beginnings and dominant 3-year-old campaign have made him a fan favorite, especially on the West Coast.

“It’s a good story,” Sheppherd said. “He’s from California. California racing’s going to be back on the map.”

Danny Chavez of Delhi, who was at the Turf Club with Sheppherd on Wednesday, is rooting for California Chrome. He’s certainly not going to bet against him.

“I definitely want him to win,” Chavez said. “I’m just rooting for California Chrome.”

Like most horseplayers, Ken Clark of Turlock is skeptical of a heavy favorite. He may be looking to play a longshot Saturday.

He thinks heavily favored California Chrome will be denied the Triple Crown like the 11 horses who have gone into the Belmont with the opportunity since 1978.

“Every time, something happens,” Clark said. “It looks too good to be true.”

Whether it’s been an injury (Charismatic), a better horse, or a jockey’s error, like Kent Desormeaux moving to the lead too early on Real Quiet only to get beaten by a nose, winning the Belmont Stakes is difficult under the Triple Crown pressure.

In fact, it’s proven to be one of sport’s most elusive prizes.

“If (jockey Victor Espinoza) makes a move too early, like they always do, he’s going to be in big trouble,” Clark said.

Ray Simpson, the Turf Club’s manager, said the Turf Club drew over 500 people for the Preakness on May 17. He said there could be almost double that for the Belmont on Saturday.

“When a horse wins the first two races (of the Triple Crown), everyone comes out to see if history is going to be made or not,” Simpson said. “We should have around 1,000 people here. We urge people to come here early to get the table of their choice.”

Simpson said the crowd could reach standing room only and that the Turf Club will bring in extra parimutuel clerks to handle the heavy load of wagering.

Kathy Epps, the parimutuel manager at the Turf Club, is excited about Saturday.

“We’re going to be the busiest we’ve ever been in the 15 years I’ve been here,” she said. “It should be a lot of fun.”

Like many “Chromies” in California and across the country, Epps will be cheering for a California Chrome victory.

“I really think California Chrome is going to win,” Epps said. “The horse seems to have a lot of heart. It wants to win; it knows it’s racing.”

The popularity of the colt – who has won its last six races, including some in dominating fashion – seems to have given California racing industry a much-needed boost. The state lost two major race tracks – Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows – in recent years.

“It means a lot for racing in California,” Epps said.

And the horse’s Northern California connections – he spent his early years being raised at Harris Farms in Coalinga – makes him an extra special favorite in the Central Valley.

When the horse charged down the stretch to a 1½-length victory in the Preakness nearly three weeks ago, the crowd at the Turf Club roared with approval.

“It’s a popular because it’s a California horse, Simpson said. “Almost like a hometown favorite.”

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