With a gritty victory in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes on Saturday, California Chrome kept hope alive that thoroughbred racing's 36-year Triple Crown drought might finally be coming to an end. Just as he did in his Kentucky Derby win on May 3, the chestnut colt stalked the early leaders around the first turn and down the backside (behind modest fractional times of 23.56 and 46.85 for the opening quarter mile and half mile, respectively) before taking control of the race in the final four furlongs. In the stretch, California Chrome fought off game challenges from Social Inclusion and Ride On Curlin to win by more than a length in 1:54.84, the fastest time in seven years.
The win was especially sweet for California Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, the former jockey, who had never been to Pimlico before. Sherman and co-owner Steve Coburn were both in tears after the race — and rightly so. In just a few weeks, they have reached the pinnacle of their sport with a modestly bred, inexpensive horse that has captured the imagination of sports fans everywhere. This horse and these men are worth rooting for.
A few thoughts from a very interesting Preakness:
● California Chrome won not only because of his talent, but also because he got a brilliant ride from jockey Victor Espinoza. Nothing in this race went according to plan. The dangerous speed horse was supposed to be Social Inclusion, but the colt never charged for the lead. He settled in behind California Chrome in fourth place and let longshot Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia, the filly, set the pace. "It was a little complicated in the beginning," Espinoza said in the winner's circle after the race.
LAYDEN: California Chrome runs for validation in the Preakness
With nothing going the way Espinoza imagined in the early going, it would have been understandable if the jockey had panicked. Instead, he may have done his best riding around the first turn. Ria Antonia had charged into second from California Chrome's outside heading into the turn, putting Espinoza and his colt in a perilous position between the two pace-setters and just in front of Social Inclusion, who was just outside California Chrome's right hindquarters. But Espinoza smoothly took his colt back and swung him gently to the outside so that he was racing three-wide and, more importantly, in the clear. It was a delicate move, but Espinoza made it seamlessly and it kept California Chrome out of traffic down the backstretch. Dream trips in racing are as much a function of riders' decisions as they are of racing luck, and California Chrome got an excellent trip on Saturday because of the early work done by Espinoza.
● California Chrome was enormously impressive while fighting off two late challenges on his way to victory. Social Inclusion, who seemed to be trying to stalk the 3-5 favorite, made a huge run at the half-mile pole, forcing California Chrome to move early. Social Inclusion never made the lead, and California Chrome put him away by the time he had reached the top of the stretch.
After dealing with the challenge from Social Inclusion, California Chrome faced another, more serious effort, from Ride On Curlin, who came from way off the pace to challenge for the lead in the stretch. It was a game run, but Ride On Curlin still never came closer than a length or so from taking the lead. California Chrome was, as they say in racing, much the best on Saturday. "What a great horse, this is just a dream come true," said Sherman after the race. "He just tries hard every time, it's all you can ask."
● All attention now turns to whether California Chrome can win the Triple Crown with a victory in the 1 1/2 --mile Belmont Stakes on June 7. There are sure to be plenty of challengers looking to stop him, but everyone should remember that California Chrome has already beaten just about every 3-year-old of note in North America. And his victory in the Derby seems even more impressive now. Ride On Curlin was one of two challengers from Kentucky to make the trip to Baltimore. He finished second. The other Derby horse in the Preakness, General a Rod, should have finished third -- the only reason he didn't is because Ria Antonia slowed badly in front of him, stopping the colt's momentum in the stretch.
California Chrome is sure to head to the starting gate on June 7 accompanied by a legion of vociferous doubters. I will not be among them. The naysayers have history on their side. No horse since Affirmed in 1978 has won the Triple Crown. And there are certainly many things that can go wrong in the long stretches and around the sweeping turns of Belmont Park. But right now, at this moment, there is no better 3-year-old in America than California Chrome. The next three weeks are going to be fun.