Could this finally be the year?
And could this wannabe savior of horse racing be the unlikeliest of prospects, having been bred in California and stabled at a quarter horse track?
In three weeks we’ll know if California Chrome will be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., California Chrome became the 13th horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed ascended racing’s highest platform.
California Chrome had a perfect trip at Pimlico, getting out of the gate quickly and settling into third for the first half. He made his move easily around the final turn to beat a field of 10, winning the second race of the Triple Crown by 1 1/2 lengths.
Ride on Curlin finished second and Social Inclusion was third.
It was California Chrome’s sixth win a row, and all with Victor Espinoza along for the ride.
“It’s an awesome feeling to have a horse like California Chrome,” Espinoza said on the way to the Winner’s Circle.
California Chrome became the 71st favorite in 139 races to win the Preakness. He went off at an absurdly low 1/2, returning $3 for every $2 bet. That’s less than even money. You wouldn’t take those odds in Las Vegas, but this could be history in the making.
Espinoza has been in this situation before. He guided War Emblem in 2002 to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before falling short in the Belmont Stakes.
There were a couple of facts that pointed toward California Chrome not winning the Preakness.
--No horse had won the Preakness from the No. 3 post position since Prairie Bayou in 1993
--No California bred has won the Preakness since Snow Chief in 1986.
--And no horse ever stabled at Los Alamitos Race Course, a charming quarter horse track in Orange County known more for being the only late simulcast option, has ever won one of racing’s Triple Crown races before this year.
But none of hose reasons were bigger than one easily identifiable reason. California Chrome was just the best horse.
The next stop is Belmont Park in three weeks, where my Old Kentucky Home has given way to Maryland, My Maryland, which gives way to New York, New York.
The Kentucky Derby is run at 1 1/4 miles and the Preakness covers 1 3/16 miles, but the Belmont is a torturously long 1 1/2 miles, a distance that dirt horses never run.
But it’s not the distance so much as the amount of time (five weeks) that horses are asked to run three races that proves to be the downfall. Thoroughbreds normally race no more than once a month.
But Art Sherman, the horse’s 77-year-old trainer, feels confident should no problems arise with California Chrome’s health.
“I tell you, it’s quite a thrill,” Sherman said. “I knew we had to run harder this race. Watching him come back in two weeks I was little concerned. I hope a mile and half is up his ally.”
There was a mid-week story about California Chrome having a blister in his throat. But Sherman dismissed it as being nothing. Well, he was right.
Two years ago another California horse, one that ran here not bred here, I’ll Have Another was at this same juncture. The sport was looking for something to spark interest in a sport on the decline. But I’ll Have Another scratched a few days before the race and those dreams of Triple Crown were dashed yet again.
Sherman was feeling good about the Belmont.
“After watching him run today I think he can go a mile and a half,”
Sherman said. “He’s a horse that can rate. And when you have a speed horse that can rate you’re always dangerous.”
Espinoza was a little more guarded in his assessment.
“I hope (he can handle the distance) OK, but you never know until he runs,” Espinoiza said. Then he added, “You know, we’ll get it done.”
Will California Chrome be that horse? Can history be written? We’ll have three weeks with only one storyline -- can he do it?