California Chrome faces shuffled field in Preakness Stakes - NBC Sports

California Chrome faces shuffled field in Preakness Stakes
Kentucky Derby winner hopes to overcome maladies to win second leg of Triple Crown
May 16, 2014, 12:45 pm

California Chrome rates as the horse to beat in Saturday’s $1.5 million Preakness, but questions are swirling around the Kentucky Derby winner.

He’s been coughing due to a blister in his throat and rumors are circulated about a possible shoe change. Couple those with the fact that he ran the slowest time on a fast track in the Kentucky Derby since Cannonade in 1974, registering a modest 103 BRIS Speed rating in the process, and a skeptic can make a case against the heavy favorite.

I’m not buying it. California Chrome ran fast in his prep races, crushing legitimate competition with seemingly minimal effort, and while he didn’t equal his best performances in the Kentucky Derby, it didn’t matter -- he put himself in position with his tactical speed and outclassed the competition with a dynamic turn of foot into the stretch.

WATCH: Will California Chrome follow up Derby win with a Preakness victory?

The talented chestnut colt is liable to take to Pimlico’s track better than he did at Churchill Downs and won’t be facing proven competition -- only three of his rivals, including an overmatched filly, are even graded stakes winners. This is a weaker field than the Kentucky Derby.

Coverage of the 139th Preakness Stakes begins at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN and shifts to NBC at 4:30. The entire day will be streaming on Live Extra.

Trainer Art Sherman and his crew remain adamant that their charge is 100 percent healthy, with no breathing or physical issues, and California Chrome can put himself in a prime spot during the long run to the first turn, in the clear and tracking the front-runners. The 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in three weeks represents a much different hurdle, but class can prevail in Baltimore.

California Chrome is my top pick in the 139th running of the Preakness.

Minor Awards

Bayern rates the best chance at an upset.

Trained by five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert, Bayern opened his racing career with a pair of stylish victories and was readying for a match-up against California Chrome in the March 8 San Felipe when he was sidelined by a foot bruise – a setback that knocked the promising prospect completely off course.

Instead of receiving a perfect set-up for his final Kentucky Derby prep race, the April 12 Arkansas Derby, Bayern was a race short following the two-month layoff and weakened to third. That left him with an insufficient point total for the Kentucky Derby. He came back two weeks later to post a determined nose win in the April 26 Derby Trial, but was disqualified for bumping a rival in the stretch.

The 92 BRIS Speed rating he earned last time can be knocked, but Bayern posted better numbers in his first three starts this year and the last couple of races toughened him up, preparing him for a career-best effort Saturday. He sheds blinkers and can settle into a nice stalking trip just off the early speed. Look for a strong showing with Rosie Napravnik.

Kid Cruz may not be good enough to win, but the deep closer brings at least a puncher’s chance into the middle leg of the Triple Crown. He exits a convincing 3 ½-length win in the April 19 Federico Tesio at Pimlico, winning his second straight stakes attempt, and the improving colt could take advantage of a contested pace up front that weakens the front-runners. Consider him primarily for the minor awards.

Ride on Curlin received a poor ride in the Kentucky Derby, surging late for seventh after being repeatedly stopped, and his supporters will be expecting much more on Saturday. I still question his effectiveness at the 1 3/16-mile trip – his only wins came in a pair of sprints and he’s never run back to the triple-digit Speed rating he earned when capturing a 5 ½-furlong maiden last summer at Ellis Park – but Ride on Curlin appears to be training well and gets part often (five stakes placings). I’ll use the battle-tested colt underneath in the exotics.

Others in Order of Preference

General a Rod was shuffled back early and never fired in the Kentucky Derby, checking in 11th, and Preakness history is filled with horses who rebounded from a disappointing effort two weeks earlier. I like the gameness he displayed earlier this season and wouldn’t be surprised to see the colt enjoy a good stalking trip; my main concern is that he may be more of a middle-distance specialist. But General a Rod remains eligible to grab a small share at long odds.

Social Inclusion is the only other horse listed at single-digit odds on the morning line, 5-1, but he’s a race short, missing a recent planned prep due to a foot bruise (the same issue cost Bayern dearly). The lightly raced colt will be rushed early to contest the early pace and I don’t view him as a legitimate candidate to last the 1 3/16-mile trip. Social Inclusion ran well under different circumstances at Gulfstream Park earlier this year, but he can beat me on Saturday.

Dynamic Impact is a promising colt, following a March 1 maiden win with a gutsy nose score in the April 19 Illinois Derby, but he didn’t run very fast in either performance and faces an extreme class check from a tough rail post.

Pablo Del Monte, Ring Weekend and the filly Ria Antonia appear overmatched.

Betting Strategy

We hit the Kentucky Derby with California Chrome and will play the Preakness with house money. There’s no value in betting him straight at his 3-5 morning line odds, so I’ll focus upon exotic tickets.

From a $100 bankroll,

$40 exacta: 3-5
$15 exacta: 3-7
$15 exacta: 3-10
$5 trifecta: 3 over 5,7 over 2,5,7,10 ($30)

Enjoy the Preakness!