As California Chrome Tackles Belmont, 'Strategy Is Everything"

California Chrome will compete for the prestigious Triple Crown at Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Equestrian journalist and Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand previews the race for NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At dusk tonight - the Belmont stakes, and an engaging chestnut named California Chrome has a chance to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown - a sweep of all three of the major thoroughbred races since 1978. We're honored now to be joined by Laura Hillenbrand. She's a horse rider by trade, of course she's author of the perpetual best-selling "Seabiscuit." Laura, thanks so much for being with us.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: I'm so happy to be here Scott.

SIMON: What is there about the Belmont stakes that frustrates so many great four-legged athletes who've already won two big races?

HILLENBRAND: They call it the test of their champion for a reason. It is a tricky race. It's run around the biggest track in the country so strategy is different. You have to move a different place. It's a race that requires a lot of the jockey.

The thing that makes it the hardest in terms of sweeping the whole Triple Crown is the horse that gets there with a chance to win it as California Chrome has. They've already competed in the Derby and the Preakness, which are two incredibly difficult races. And now, in the span of five weeks, they have to try the third one. And it's the hardest one of all, the longest one of all. It's really asking a huge amount of them. And that's why, in my whole racing fan life, I have never seen a horse sweep the Triple Crown. I've seen 12 horses go to the Belmont with a chance to win it, and all of them have failed.

SIMON: California Chrome is called the people's horse, kind of like Seabiscuit.

HILLENBRAND: He has a wonderful story. He is a lot like Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit was the working class hero. And that was one of the things that made people in the Great Depression just latch onto him and love him so much. This horse is so compelling. The two men that own him, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, are regular guys, ordinary working guys with small businesses. They' spent $8,000 on a mare named Love the Chase. And she had only one really cheap race in her life. There was really nothing to be said for her. Right after they bought the horse, a groom walked by and they heard him mutter, anybody that would spend $8,000 on that mayor is a dumb ass.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HILLENBRAND: And the two guys - I love them - they decided to embrace that. They made the official name of their stable Dumb Ass Partners. And they bred the mare to a relatively obscure stallion. And before the mayor gave birth - Steve Coburn, one of the owners - had a dream that the foal would be a chestnut, and that he would grow up and win the Kentucky Derby.

And the foal was born on the birthday of his late sister, who had died of cancer. And it was, indeed, a chestnut. And he believed, from that day on, this horse was going to win the derby. And this man planned the whole trip to the derby, each race the horse would run in. And the horse turned out to have enormous talent.

SIMON: So California Chrome is supposed to be a little slow out of the gate.

HILLENBRAND: He's all right out of the gate. He's fidgety in it. He's actually a lovely horse disposition wise - loves people, is very tractable. But in the gate he gets really easier to go so he will fidget, fidget, fidget. And one very top trainer, Bob Baffert, who has won his share of Triple Crown races said if he can get out of the gate well, he will win this race.

SIMON: He has got white homes. And I have read white hooves make a horse vulnerable.

HILLENBRAND: Yes. Well, white hooves does tend to be softer than dark hooves. And his actually point east and west, his front feet, he does not have straight feet. You can see in the starting gate. He's like Charlie Chaplin in there.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HILLENBRAND: But yes, they do make them vulnerable. But to my knowledge, he has no problem with his feet. And there was another horse with three white feet who did pretty well, and his name was Secretariat.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. OK. Victor Espinoza is Chrome's jockey. What do you expect from him?

HILLENBRAND: He's a very talented rider. He has been here before. He won two legs of the Triple Crown with War Emblem a few years ago. He's made beautiful decisions in terms of where to position the horse and strategy is everything in the Belmont. This is a riders race.

I don't know if he will win, but this afternoon, pin your heart on this beautiful little horse and this odd cast of characters around him. The pantheon of Triple Crown winners admits only the truly great. So if he is good enough to do it, you will be looking at a horse for the ages.

SIMON: Laura Hillenbrand, the author of "Seabiscuit." Thanks a much for being with us.

HILLENBRAND: Thank you so much for having me.

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