BALTIMORE -- The Triple Crown comes to the Preakness for validation and truth. The Kentucky Derby is the most important and most watched horse race in the United States (and perhaps in the world), but with its 20-horse field, unfamiliar and grueling 1¼-mile distance and intense atmosphere, it can produce inexplicable results. In the parlance of the game, the wrong horse can win the Derby. But the wrong horse seldom comes back two weeks later and wins the Preakness. Lightning strikes once. In 2005, Giacomo picked up the pieces of a suicidal pace and won the Derby; four years later Mine That Bird got through on the rail in the slop to take the roses. Both ran well at Pimlico; neither won. Super Saver won the 2010 Derby at 8-1 odds and finished eighth at Pimlico. Smarty Jones ('04), Big Brown ('08) and I'll Have Another ('12) followed impressive Derby wins with vindicating Preakness victories.
Often the insiders know in advance. Eleven years ago a cranky 64-year-old trainer named Barclay Tagg brought the Kentucky Derby winner to the Preakness. The horse was a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide, who was owned in part by a bunch of high school friends from upstate New York. Funny Cide had been sent off in Kentucky at 13-1; eight horses had been deemed by the betting public more likely to win the Derby, yet Funny Cide won by 1¾ lengths. Two weeks later on the morning of the Preakness, Tagg was knotting a tie around his neck when he said to his girlfriend, "He's going to crush these horses today." And that is what happened. Funny Cide won the Preakness by nearly 10 lengths, galloping through the Baltimore slop to an easy victory.
It is the Preakness that decides whether a horse -- and that horse's story -- will be given life beyond a single weekend. And it is the Preakness that decides whether the Belmont Stakes, run three weeks later in New York will have the special meaning attached to a Triple Crown attempt. To be fair, the 36-year Triple Crown drought has overwhelmed the sport of racing, reducing every Derby, every Preakness, every Belmont and every spring racing season to a game of game of Yay or Nay. The three races are individually meaningful, but the drought has subsumed that meaning.
VIDEO: Preakness Stakes Preview
Thirteen days ago, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby with arrogant ease, his fifth consecutive victory. Jockey Victor Espinoza sent Chrome to the lead on the far turn at Churchill Downs and the colt opened up a five-length lead in the middle of the homestretch before Espinoza throttled him back to win by 1¾ lengths. California Chrome was resoundingly the best horse in the race. Yet in the days that followed, handicappers nitpicked his performance. Chrome was given only a 97 Beyer Speed Figure, the lowest in the 23 years that such figures had been made public. (Mike Watchmaker of the Daily Racing Form wrote a well-reasoned explanation of why this 97 Beyer might not be terribly significant). There was more: Chrome won with a perfect tactical trip and thus still has not dispelled the pre-Derby criticism that he's never overcome significant mid-race adversity to win. (Never mind that it was Chrome's athleticism and Espinoza's skill that enabled such a clean trip.) Above all, a Derby win is a Derby win.
Yet a Preakness win elevates a Derby winner exponentially. California Chrome's back story immediately endeared him to a crossover audience. His trainer is 77-year-old Art Sherman, who has said repeatedly that he never expected to have a horse like this. Chrome is the progeny of a mare bought for $8,000 by two rookie owners (who call their stable Dumb-Ass] Partners) and an unproven stallion whose stud fee was around $2,000. (As a sidebar, one of those owners, Steve Coburn, the one in the cowboy hat, continues to embrace the media spotlight. The other, Perry Martin, was so overwhelmed by that same spotlight during and after the Derby that he is not coming to the Preakness. "I feel badly for him," says Sherman. "I wish he could enjoy this." Martin granted his only extensive interview to Sports Illustrated for this story before the Derby. He was so hesitant to submit to questioning that he ducked phone queries for six days and only participated at Coburn's urging. Not all Americans desire fame.)
LAYDEN: California Chrome: The Accidental Favorite
And it's possible that California Chrome's Derby win came on a day -- or on a racetrack -- when he was not at his best. "I don't think he liked the track that day," says Espinoza. "He was working a lot harder than usual to get over the surface. It was not easy for him.'' In Espinoza's four previous rides on Chrome, the colt had easily changed leads turning for home; in the Derby, Espinoza had to force him to change. (When a horse changes leads, he switches the foremost foot in his stride; failing to change leads will hasten fatigue.) ``He was tired after that race,'' says Espinoza. "Horses get tired after every race, but he used a lot of energy in the Derby."
Late this week a potential problem bubbled to the surface. Trainer Sherman and his assistant, Alan Sherman, who is also his son, have said that California Chrome recovered splendidly from the Derby, eating every meal and even gaining weight (often racehorses lose weight after hard efforts). On Thursday morning ESPN reported that Chrome had developed a cough, which could indicate illness. Alan Sherman explained that the cough was the result of a minor irritation from a blister in the back of the colt's throat. He also added that Chrome had the same blister before the Derby. "The horse is fine," he said Thursday. "We had the vet scope him and draw blood. The blood came back 100 percent clean." The impression Sherman gave was that the endoscopic examination and blood work had been done early on Thursday morning. However, under further questioning on Friday morning, he said that California Chrome had been scoped after the Derby -- but not since -- and that the most recent blood work had been performed on May 11, the day before the colt was flown to Baltimore. Hence, while Sherman insisted that the blister was "just the smallest little ulcer on his [palate]," Chrome has apparently not had his throat examined internally in more than a week.
It's very plausible that Chrome's malady is very minor and won't affect his performance. Yet soundness rumors spread like wildfire at the racetrack, and the Chrome camp's vague flip-flopping on details of the horse's treatment ensure that the the cough will remain fodder for doubters until California Chrome wins the Preakness, and probably beyond.
His competition appears less daunting than in the Derby. (The second-through-sixth-place finishers from the Derby are skipping the Preakness, in many cases to rest up for a shot at Chrome in the Belmont, a practice that Art Sherman decried here this week. "I think it takes a little something away from the race, when horses from the Derby don't run in the Preakness," he said. "I think those horses should run back." Yet Sherman has also said repeatedly that he wouldn't normally run a horse back on such limited rest if not for the exceptional circumstances of the Triple Crown.)
There will be 10 Preakness starters. California Chrome has been made the 3-5 morning line favorite, an unusually short price, even for a Derby winner. Just two Derby finishers are in the field: General a Rod, who finished 11th in Kentucky, and Ride On Curlin, who was a troubled seventh when jockey Calvin Borel tried too hard to get a clean rail trip and instead got only trouble. Seven others are new to the Triple Crown trail. The most intriguing are Social Inclusion (and his 85-year-old trainer, Manny Azpura), who showed brilliance late in the winter before missing time with an injury, and Bayern, who was also promising early in the year and is trained by five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert.
LAYDEN: Victor and Jose Espinoza, one career but two different lives
Maryland-based Kid Cruz won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico in mid-April, and Dynamic Impact won the Illinois Derby three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Filly Ria Antonia will get attention, but she was a well-beaten sixth in the Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Derby; her presence in the race is perplexing.
The Preakness appears loaded with speedy horses likely to contest a hot early pace. (The same was said about the Derby, but the field dawdled, playing into the stalking California Chrome's hands; this time a fast clip seems unavoidable.) Bayern and Social Inclusion, from the No. 5 and No. 9 post positions, respectively, seem almost certain to bolt toward the front. Espinoza will have to ask California Chrome to run faster earlier to stalk the pace closely. Art Sherman says that his horse can do that easily. "He's got enough lick to stay with any horse," he said.
To pick against Chrome in the Preakness is to make one of two significant leaps of faith: Presume either that one of the other nine horses will run the race of his life, or that Chrome will regress badly from his Derby. Neither appears likely (although there's that cough). The pace will be quick, but not too quick for Chrome. He will inhale the speed on the turn, as usual, and roll down the lane to victory. Ride On Curlin will close for second and Kid Cruz will get up for third. The speed horses will all fade. And then it's on to Belmont, where California Chrome will have chance to end a historic drought.