California Chrome's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 lives on after he won the 139th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, holding off Ride on Curlin down the stretch to add the second jewel of the Triple Crown to his Kentucky Derby title.
"It's an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome," jockey Victor Espinoza, who won his second Preakness Stakes, said immediately after guiding his horse to victory.
"New York, here we come," trainer Art Sherman added.
California Chrome entered the race as a 3-5 morning line favorite in a field that featured just two other returning starters from the Kentucky Derby -- General a Rod and Ride on Curlin. The field was also historic as just the third in Preakness history to include a female horse, jockey and trainer -- the filly Ria Antonia, Rosie Napravnik aboard Bayern and Linda Rice, who saddled Kid Cruz, respectively.
The Kentucky Derby champion got off to a strong, clean start -- always a cause of concern for a horse with a tendency to rock back-and-forth in the starting gate -- and settled into third position, from where he stalked Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia at the front for much of the race. He then made his own move to the front in the final turn, with Social Inclusion, the second betting favorite, coming along for the ride alongside him on the outside. California Chrome pulled away from Social Inclusion down the stretch, holding off another outside challenge from Ride on Curlin to win by a length-and-a-half in a time of 1:54.84.
"It's an awesome feeling," Espinoza said. "It was just a crazy race. I got more tired mentally than physically. I see another horse go to the front. I was going to sit second. ... I sit back, as soon as the other horse got clear of me, it worked out perfect."
California Chrome's rags-to-riches story has captured America's attention, a horse bred for $10,000 beating million-dollar horses in the world's premier races. Equally engaging have been his working man owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, known as the "Dumb-Ass Partners," and his 77-year-old trainer Sherman, who arrived at his sport's pinnacle for the first time at the Kentucky Derby and had never even visited Pimlico Race Course, site of the Preakness Stakes, before this week.
"It's quite a thrill," Sherman said. "I knew we had to run harder this race."
Coburn, the Wilford Brimley lookalike, had tears in his eyes after his horse's Preakness triumph.
"I don't mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant," Coburn said. "I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, "Carolyn, this horse is going to do something big. I don't know what it is, but we're going to stay in the game to make sure this colt gets to be the best that he can be.'
"We just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win."
The last horse to successfully complete the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978. Since then 12 other horses have come out of the Preakness with their Triple Crown bids alive, only to fall short of the goal. The most recent was I'll Have Another, who did not race in the 2012 Belmont Stakes due to a tendon injury. A total of just 11 horses have won the Triple Crown.
The final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, will take place on Saturday, June 7, and will be shown live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra.
Questions will be raised over the next three weeks as to whether California Chrome will hold up the rigors of the longer, mile-and-a-half track at Belmont. Sherman, in the midst of the thrill of his life, is hopeful that his horse has the distance in him.
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"He's a real race horse, and I'm hoping the mile-and-a-half is up his alley, too," Sherman said.
Espinoza knows better than anyone how difficult the Triple Crown task is to complete. He was there once before aboard War Emblem in 2002, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before settling for eighth at Belmont. Will California Chrome, who has never lost a race with Espinoza jockey, succeed where others over the past 36 years have fallen short?
"You have to be a super horse to win [the Triple Crown]," Espinoza said. "Hopefully, California Chrome comes back good, and he's the one that hopefully can do it."