The weight of a jockey presses on your back. You trot out from the barn and into a dark tunnel. Emerging into the light, the sun and humidity hits your face, torso, legs and sweat starts to build along your saddle line. Your hooves touch the dirt track, clopping along with the (hopefully) dry soil collecting inside your iron shoes.
A hundred paces later and you are inside your post, and hear the gate crash closed behind you.
The sights, sounds and overall experience a thoroughbred undergoes ahead of a big race sound eerily similar to how a human would endure them. And that’s the rub.
For all the hoopla surrounding Triple Crown threat and darling California Chrome, it’s quite easy to forget that he experiences the world the same way humans do, even with two more legs and an average weight of more than half a ton. Smells, touch, heat and emotions are all factors a horse must deal with as pressure mounts, much like a boxer before the biggest fight of their life, or a golfer staring down a 30-foot putt at the final hole at Augusta.
So the question is: What is California Chrome’s mindset heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes?
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner hopes to be the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
There’s already very little doubt that horses are beholden to the same feelings as humans, and many of the same characteristics.
“From the time that horse hits the ground, you want him to be comfortable around humans,” Sean Clancy, owner of Riverdee Stable and ThisIsHorseRacing.com, told International Business Times in May. “It’s just like being in the classroom. You have the ‘brains,’ the ‘pothead,’ ‘lazy ones.’ They’re just like people, and you get a good sense pretty early if the horse is going to be good.”
The three-year-old chestnut-colored colt will run his third race in a five-week span, and everyone from his trainer to the rest of his connections suggest he’s in good spirits.
After two weeks away from his prized and most successful horse, one of the first things 77-year-old Art Sherman commented on was California Chrome’s state of mind, a hint that a horse’s mentality before a race is just as important as how much strength is left in their legs.
‘‘I thought he looked better now than he did after the Preakness,’’ Sherman told the Associated Press on Tuesday. ‘‘I couldn’t believe how much weight he put on. Going on the Triple Crown trail, it’s kind of rough. He’s an amazing horse.’’
It’s been proven that a horse’s mood can directly correlate with humans they regularly interact with. Accomplished and likely seeing everything there is to see in the world of horse racing, Sherman’s opinion on California Chrome might be the best insight anyone can give, but not even he can delve into the horse’s psyche.
“We need to look deeper at our inner state because the horse reacts to the truth,” Margrit Coates, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Animal Behavior at Southampton University UK, told Equine Wellness magazine. “If horses could speak or write they would tell us exactly how we are. We cannot put horses into human boxes, analyzing these animals as types from our viewpoint. Horses are full of emotional instinct, and the nearest we ever get to associating with a wild animal.”
Other than Sherman, it begs to reason that California Chrome is also feeding off the emotions of owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, as well as jockey Victor Espinoza.
The more outspoken Coburn has said before that he believed California Chrome, which he bred for a mere $10,000, was going to win the Triple Crown. It could be confidence Coburn is instilling in his horse, or the kind of pressure a father places on his son before a little league game.
Nearly guiding War Emblem to the Triple Crown in 2002, Espinoza, 42, is the only person in the world who can feel what California Chrome is like inside the post gate of a stakes race. He, like Sherman, is likely the calmest presence in California Chrome’s life.
Rather than deciding on a race plan, Espinoza rides with instinct, according to Louisville, Kentucky newspaper The Courier-Journal, but he doesn’t claim to have a preternatural connection with California Chrome.
"I don't think I have much chemistry with him," Espinoza said. "I just go and ride him … It's all about putting him in the right spot to be able to run his race. Basically, I don't have a plan when he goes into a race. I never have a plan. I ride it as it comes out, the way the race sets up and (changes) during the race.
"It's not easy. It's very difficult. I have to be really focused and alert. And I hope I make the right decision. Because one wrong decision can cost you. ... One of the good things about him is I have a lot of options. With most horses, you don't. That's why he's so tough."
Tough or not, we won’t ever know California Chrome’s full mental state before and after the Belmont. It could be elation from a victory or sadness from a loss. Either way, we can still try to put ourselves in his very big shoes.
But one man who started practicing as a veterinarian at Belmont Park a month before Affirmed dashed off into history says California Chrome has a natural feel, or a “cool gene,” that separates him from most other horses.
One stable over on Wednesday, and working on horses who will run in some of the races leading up to the Belmont, equine veternarian Carl Juul-Nielsen saw the cameras and massive crowd around California Chrome and said he took it all in stride, much like the Derby and Preakness.
“This horse just looked cool as a cucumber,” Juul-Nielsen, the owner and manager of New York Equine, said. “He has the ‘cool gene,’ unlike some horses that get hot-blooded and ‘wash out.’ He knows what his job is, and a lot of that is innate.”