California Chrome arrived at Pimlico Monday afternoon, following the same routine as he did at Churchill Downs, and his connections are trying to keep their confidence in check as they face enormous expectations in Baltimore.
“I feel really blessed to have this opportunity,” trainer Art Sherman said after Wednesday’s post position draw. “I love all the people here in Maryland, they’ve been great.”
Despite a cough -- the result of a blister in his throat and not a concern, Sherman Racing Stables tweeted Thursday -- California Chrome is the favorite for Saturday’s $1.5 million Preakness Stakes. Listed with 3-5 odds on the morning line, the chestnut 3-year-old has won five straight races and can become the 13th horse to capture the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed registered the last three-race sweep in 1978.
NBCSN will kick off the coverage Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, and NBC takes over the telecast at 4:30. Preakness post time is 6:18. The entire day will be streaming on Live Extra.
The Preakness strike rate is high -- 37.5 percent of the last 32 Derby winners who finished the Preakness -- and the numbers are even more flattering for overwhelming favorites. California Chrome’s facile 1 3/4-length victory two weeks ago was reminiscent of Big Brown (2008) and Smarty Jones (2004), a pair of convincing Derby winners who came back to dispatch their Preakness foes with similar ease at odds-on.
There are a few notable exceptions, but most serious Triple Crown bids are derailed in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes three weeks later.
Sherman, who at age 77 became the oldest trainer ever to win the Kentucky Derby, laid the groundwork in Southern California, successfully racing California Chrome four times over a 3 1/2-month period (Dec. 22-April 5), and the colt posted his final serious preparations at home base, Los Alamitos, before shipping to Kentucky.
He was the fastest horse on paper entering the 19-horse Derby and California Chrome overpowered the competition after the far turn, quickly opening up an insurmountable advantage with a quarter-mile remaining.
“This was a typical race for him," jockey Victor Espinoza explained afterward. "He ran like he always does. Art just said, 'You know him, ride him.' I had the trip I wanted. I don't mess with him too much. I just stretch his legs a little bit and then let him do his thing. Pressure will be back on for the Preakness, but that's OK.”
“It's very exciting to have a Derby (winner),” Sherman noted. “You think you maybe have a shot for the Triple Crown. You don't know. I'm the kind of guy who goes race by race, but I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes.”
Whether the competition will be any tougher Saturday is highly debatable. Most of his rivals are new challengers -- the five horses that finished immediately behind California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby are skipping the Preakness.
"The challenge is there," Sherman says modestly. “I can see where they have a lot of fresh shooters; they miss the Derby and then they come for you at the Preakness. It's going to be even worse when I get to the 1 1/2-mile race at the Belmont; they're going to have a lot of horses in the wings waiting for me there.”
Social Inclusion, Bayern and Dynamic Impact are the most respected “fresh shooters,” but Dynamic Impact is the only one of the group with a graded stakes victory to his credit. And he must break from a disadvantageous rail post. The two also-rans returning from the Kentucky Derby -- Ride on Curlin and General A Rod -- have also failed to earn a graded stakes win so far in their careers.
“It's always easier when you've got less horses. It's less traffic," Sherman said of facing fewer rivals Saturday. "But with his style, if he comes away from the gate in good shape -- there are three speed horses in here and he likes a target to run at -- I really think that with good racing luck he should be in a position where he'll be in the clear.”
The pressure will be on California Chrome -- the other nine jockeys will be riding to defeat the favorite -- but it’s easy to envision him handling the challenge if he maintains his form.
California Chrome brings a star quality to Saturday’s Preakness.