Now comes the hard part.
After capturing the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, California Chrome's joyful journey moves on to Belmont Park. Where Triple Crown dreams go to die.
The horse has been sensational in taking the first two legs, stretching his winning streak to six races. He has faced the best 3-year-old colts in the land and dusted all of them. He hasn't even been forced into an all-out stretch duel, instead opening up big leads and cruising to the wire.
So there is every reason to believe California Chrome is good enough to finish the job in New York June 7.
Unless you know the history of futility. That will suffuse your belief with doubt.
There are a million ways to lose a Triple Crown at Belmont, and we've seen plenty of them in the 36 years since Affirmed won the last one. We've seen horses nipped at the wire (Real Quiet, 1998), passed in the stretch (Smarty Jones in 2004, Silver Charm in '97) stumble out of the gate (War Emblem, 2002), fail to fire (Big Brown, 2008) and fail to even start because of injury (I'll Have Another, 2012).
Twelve times since Affirmed, a horse has come to the Belmont one win short of immortality. Twelve times the quest has gone unfulfilled. It has become the biggest tease in sports.
It's so ruthless, the Marquis de Sade thinks the Belmont is cruel.
The sabotage of California Chrome's karma may already have begun. Amid the afterglow of the Preakness victory Sunday morning, 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman found out that New York racing stewards have not allowed horses to run with nasal strips that enhance breathing. Chrome has been wearing strips throughout his current winning streak. Sherman even raised the possibility of co-owner Perry Martin not entering the colt if Chrome is not allowed to wear nasal strips.
Which may kill horse racing altogether. But don't expect it to come to that.
(UPDATE: On Monday, the New York racing stewards agreed to allow California Chrome to wear nasal strips.)
California Chrome's connections can make a request to the New York Gaming Board to use the strips and it will be up to the stewards to rule on such a request. Two years ago the stewards said I'll Have Another could not race in the Belmont with a nasal strip.
With or without the strips, this is going to be a hard three weeks for Chrome and his people.
When chasing a Triple Crown, what has been a joy ride for the horse's human connections to this point tends to turn into a forced march. The pressure mounts. The nerves fray. Life in the spotlight gets old. So does life on the road. And it is difficult to maintain ideal conditioning of the star 3-year-old from the first Saturday in May through June 7.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won nine Triple Crown races – three Derbies, five Preaknesses and one Belmont – once said that if you have the fittest horse on Derby day, you should still have the fittest horse two weeks later at the Preakness. A trainer doesn't need to do much to maintain that advantage. But the hard part is keeping the horse at or near that physical peak for another three weeks – that's when things go wrong.
While a trainer of a Triple Crown aspirant is trying to find that fine line in pre-Belmont conditioning, the fundamental unfairness of the event is actively conspiring against him.
The Belmont will be California Chrome's third race in five weeks, and it will be the longest race of his life at 1½ miles. It is the utmost durability test in a sport where durability is passé.
The Triple Crown is an anachronism, working on a schedule that dates back to when thoroughbreds routinely ran every couple of weeks (if not more often than that). That is almost unheard of in this day and age, yet the traditionalists in the sport recoil at the suggestion of spacing out the races.
Last Thursday I mentioned to California Chrome assistant trainer Alan Sherman (Art's son) my long-held preference for spacing the races thusly: the Derby on the first Saturday in May, as usual; the Preakness on the first Saturday in June (something endorsed by Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas); and the Belmont on July 4. A stuffed-shirt member of the horsey set immediately interjected, "Why don't they make the World Series nine games?"
It was a nonsensical retort, but it shows how tightly some cling to history in a sport that is barely surviving in the present.
If the World Series were nine games, it likely would not prevent the best team from winning. In horse racing, the best 3-year-old doesn't often win the Belmont because the races are rigged against him.
California Chrome was the only top-six finisher in the Kentucky Derby to contest the Preakness. The rest of them skipped the second leg of the Triple Crown to regroup, and several of them will show up at Belmont with superior rest to take their shot at the horse that blew them away in Louisville.
Among those we may see in New York are Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, third-place finisher Danza, fourth-place Wicked Strong and fifth-place Samraat. That's a lot of competition that is armed with a huge advantage in the most grueling race these horses will ever run.
The last eight winners of the Belmont skipped at least one leg of the Triple Crown. Of the last 12 Belmont winners, only one (Afleet Alex in 2005) contested all three legs of the Crown.
Spacing out the races would ensure a Triple Crown aspirant had adequate rest to be ready for all three. And it certainly would encourage the best horses to compete in all three races.
Until that happens, we're stuck with a sporting competition that applies a heightened degree of difficulty on its top performer. It is neither sporting nor makes sense, and it has contributed to a succession of buzzkill Belmonts in recent years.
It would be wonderful to see California Chrome, with his charming backstory and human connections, end the 36-year drought. But given everything he is up against, don't get your hopes up.