By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It has been so long since a horse won the Triple Crown that racing fans across the United States are starting to wonder whether it will ever happen again.
The quest for American racing's Holy Grail has frustrated and fascinated an entire generation since Affirmed last win the Triple Crown in 1978 but the long wait could be as over as early as Saturday.
California Chrome is on a hot streak and if he captures the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, he will be the 12th Triple Crown champion.
His rags-to-riches tale has already endeared him to a nation and given new hope that he could be the colt to break the spell.
"You think about it, 36 years and nobody's won the Triple Crown. It'd be quite an honor," said Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome. "I'm hoping that we can get the final race. It would mean a lot to racing."
California Chrome is two-thirds of the way there after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but the Belmont Stakes is the one that ultimately separates the greats from the immortals.
While not as famous or lucrative as the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont is not called the Test of the Champion for nothing. The grueling 1 1/2-mile (2,400 meter) classic is a trial of endurance, speed and patience for man and beast alike.
Only 11 horses have completed the tricky treble, but in the 36 years since Affirmed, 11 more 3-year-olds arrived at Belmont Park in Elmont, a suburb of Long Island, with the scent of glory in their nostrils, only to be beaten.
A 12th, I'll Have Another, was scratched on the eve of the 2012 race but hope burns eternal and now those hopes rest with a flashy chestnut colt bred and trained in the Golden State.
In a sport where the rich and famous own the best horses while the poor have to be content just to bet on them, the prospect of an overdue Triple Crown winner has everyone giddy with excitement.
Horse racing struggles for mainstream recognition in America with attendance and betting figures in decline. But more than 100,000 people are expected at the track on Saturday to watch the Belmont Stakes live while millions more watch on television, captivated as much by the unlikely personalities involved with the horse as the Triple Crown itself.
Feted like pop stars, California Chrome's connections have taken the Big Apple by storm. Jockey Victor Espinoza tossed the ceremonial first pitch at a New York Yankees game and was joined by Sherman and the horse's owners to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
The bookmakers have installed California Chrome as the odds-on favorite after he stormed home to win the first two legs, but the Belmont looms as his biggest challenge.
What makes the Triple Crown so difficult to win is the makeup and timing of the races. They are each held in different states, over different distances, during a span of five weeks. And the winner invariably faces different opposition each time.
While the legendary Secretariat beat just four rivals to win the 1973 Triple Crown, ending a 25-year-drought, California Chrome has 10 opponents to contend with and most of his rivals are fresher than him.
Commanding Curve, who flashed home to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, skipped the Preakness to conserve his energy for the lung-bursting Belmont.
So too did Wicked Strong, who came fourth in the Derby after running into heavy traffic during the race while the highly-rated Tonalist missed each of the first two legs.
Billy Gowan, who prepares Ride On Curlin, who finished second to California Chrome in the Preakness States, said it was a bittersweet prospect for all the rival trainers.
"I'm a racing fan like everybody else," he said. "I've always wanted a Triple Crown, but hopefully not this year."
The fascination with California Chrome and his oddball connections has only added to the sense of occasion.
The son of a Brooklyn Barber, Sherman has spent a lifetime in racing but found little success on the track.
He never even had a runner in any of the Triple Crown races before this year, though he was an exercise rider for Swaps when he won the 1955 Kentucky Derby, sleeping alongside the horse on a bed of straw on a four-day train trip from the California.
Espinoza, whose father is a goat farmer in Mexico, was terrified of horses when he was a child but learnt to ride on a donkey. He took up horse riding as a teenager to make ends meet after getting a fake ID to drive buses in Mexico City.
This is not his first trip to the Triple Crown circus. In 2002, he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes on War Emblem only too see his bid at history when the horse stumbled and nearly fell at the start of the Belmont.
Then there's the owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, two blue-collar working men who are new to the racing game but took a gamble that has paid rich dividends.
They bred California Chrome themselves for just $10,500 from an unwanted mare and a sire that had done little on the track.
They even named their two-man syndicate Dumb-Ass Partners after overhearing a stablehand say they were fools, and many thought they were certifiably insane when they turned down a $6 million offer to sell a 51 percent share of their star colt after he won the Santa Anita Derby.
No one is questioning their judgment now after California Chrome has won his last six races, taking his earnings past $3 million and raising his value as a stallion to the tens of millions.
"He's America's horse now," Coburn told Reuters. "We've got the whole country and the world behind us because we're just normal working people and we've done this the old fashioned way, through plain hard work.
"From the moment this horse was born I knew he was going to do something special so I expect him to win on Saturday, I really do, and it'll be huge."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)