California Chrome | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs and Benoit

California Chrome | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs and Benoit

California Chrome will not win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, and contrary to popular opinion, it’s the best thing that could happen to the bedraggled sport of horse racing.

If he wins, he’ll vanish like Jimmy Hoffa. Five minutes after being feted before the largest audience his sport will command all year, California Chrome will be whisked away to start a new career as a professional copulator.

Racing’s new star will shrink into a comet, here and gone, fast forgotten. The sport is back to square one.

Worse than square one, actually. Because if California Chrome wins the Belmont, he wins the Triple Crown and he kills the white whale. The hunt is finished. The wait is over. If another horse sweeps the Kentucky Derby and Preakness next year, it’s just a rerun, an anticlimax.

Citation won the eighth Triple Crown in 1948. The feat went unmatched for 25 years. People said it had become impossible. Then Secretariat won in 1973. And Seattle Slew in ’77. And Affirmed in ’78.

On the eve of Spectacular Bid’s attempt to annex the crown for the fourth time in seven years, Billy Reed wrote in The Courier-Journal that the series needed an overhaul. It had become too easy.

It hasn’t been won since.

Maybe it’s better that way. Sometimes the chase is more fun than the catch.

What happens to a dream deferred? Sometimes it becomes more alluring. For a declining sport starved for attention, that’s a blessing, not a bane.

If California Chrome loses Saturday, his stud value plummets and, more than likely, he keeps racing. His owners already have floated the idea of running him as a 4-year-old. Defeat gives them every excuse to do so.

I suspect that co-owner Steve Coburn, who regards the red colt as a modern Pegasus, would leap at the opportunity to salve his wounded pride and extend his waning share of Warholian fame. I imagine he’d relish being the star attraction at the Breeders’ Cup this fall and the Dubai World Cup next spring.

The sport would too.

Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, haven’t ruled out the prospect of still racing California Chrome even if he wins the Triple Crown. They might be quixotic enough to actually do it. After all, the two working stiffs famously refused a $6 million offer for half-interest in the colt already.

They made their point. Now it’s time to make their money – more money than California Chrome is likely to ever earn on the race track. Despite his unfashionable pedigree, as a Triple Crown winner, Chrome’s stud value would be $15 million or so. Having already scaled the sport’s highest mountain, the only prudent move is to cash in.

But I don’t believe the colt’s owners will have that option.

California Chrome has worked brilliantly at Belmont Park over the past two weeks. The Triple Crown grind has built him up, not worn him down. According to assistant trainer Alan Sherman, the colt has gained more than 30 pounds of muscle since Derby Day. His coat glows like polished copper.

California Chrome is in the best shape of his young life. That’s why he will lose the Belmont Stakes.

Unlike most modern thoroughbreds, California Chrome seems to thrive from racing. Six starts in five months have honed him to a sharp edge. He looks to be more powerful than ever. But so did Funny Cide and Smarty Jones.

3crown2014Like Chrome, those horses came to Belmont Park seeking a Triple Crown and appearing to be at a physical peak. Like Chrome, they were speed horses – and they were too sharp for their own good. When the gates sprang open, they were wound too tight to relax at any stage of the race. A 1 ½-mile marathon can’t be won that way. And they didn’t.

California Chrome won’t either.

Though he isn’t an utterly headstrong, need-the-lead horse, Chrome is Type A all the way. Equine behavioralist Kerry Thomas says he seeks to “impose his will on a race.” It’s a running style that has carried California Chrome to six consecutive overpowering wins – but at distances far shorter than the Belmont demands.

The bully-boy approach is a bad fit for the Belmont. In Thomas’ parlance, it requires too much emotional energy. Naturally, that drains a horse’s physical energy, and a colt like Chrome, whose pedigree slants more to speed than stamina, needs to conserve every iota of energy that he can.

A mile and half is a very long way for a 1,000-pound animal to run at 35 mph or so. The Kentucky Derby distance is taxing enough. The finish line of the Belmont is an extra quarter-mile away.

Rivals will be coming in waves at California Chrome on Saturday. If the race is run to form, he’ll have to fend off Samraat, Tonalist and General a Rod early, repel Wicked Strong and Medal Count turning for home, and keep at least three others at bay in the final furlong: Commissioner, Ride On Curlin and Commanding Curve.

The latter two were gaining on Chrome in the final yards of the Preakness and Derby. Some say Chrome was “eased up” by jockey Victor Espinoza late in both races, but that’s mostly a mirage. Young horses tend to run as fast as they can until their jockeys stand in the irons and signal that the race is over. What’s more, it’s nigh impossible to slow a half-ton creature’s momentum to a meaningful degree over a mere 100 yards.

Chrome ran hard. Commanding Curve and Ride On Curlin were catching up. It doesn’t necessarily mean they would have caught him with farther to run – that’s often a mirage as well – but it definitely indicates that Chrome’s energy was on the wane.

At the eighth pole, Chrome led the Derby by five lengths and the Preakness by three. He won both by less than 2, looking like nothing so much as a 9-furlong horse that simply gutted out the last 100 to 200 yards.

The Belmont will force him to gut out another 440 yards on top of that. I doubt he can do it.

In the last eighth of a mile, he will discover he’s not Citation or Seattle Slew. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with being a rugged, courageous, overachieving colt that fell a little short of immortality – but turned a $10,000 investment into $3.5 million (and counting) along the way.

It wouldn’t surprise me or displease me if California Chrome won Saturday. But the likeliest winners seem to be Wicked Strong, if he behaves himself in the paddock and starting gate, and Medal Count, if he finally makes good on the tantalizing potential he has flashed since last summer.

But if Chrome loses, the real winner is horse racing itself. The curtain won’t be coming down on its swift and handsome new star.

Postscript for the parimutuelly inclined: The Belmont is a longshot’s race. Only two favorites have won since 1998. In those 15 years, nine winners paid better than 12-1; six paid more than 25-1.