Hey, California Chrome, congratulations on winning the 2014 Kentucky Derby. You really ran a great race out there and—oh, who are we kidding? Let's talk about the Preakness.
A 2-1 pre-race favorite, California Chrome indeed turned in a dominant performance Saturday evening en route to winning the 140th classic at Churchill Downs. He is the second straight odds-on favorite in a row to win the Derby after a lengthy post-Big Brown lull.
As noted just about anywhere ending in a dotcom, California Chrome's ascent to horse racing superstardom is noteworthy in and of itself. Not the product of a monolithic training presence nor even backed by multimillionaires with a longstanding reputation in the sport, he is one of the most unlikely heavy favorites in horse racing history. The ownership group that bought the mare that gave birth to California Chrome is literally titled Dumb Ass Partners.
Based on the way California Chrome ran Saturday, they were being modest. He held in third place for much of the early going prior to turning on the jets and extending an insurmountable lead. The margin was as many as five lengths before jockey Victor Espinoza pumped the brakes to bask in the moment. Commanding Curve closed the margin out to 1 3/4 lengths before crossing the finish line, but the result was never in question.
"This horse has so much talent," Espinoza told reporters after the race. "By the three-eighths pole I knew that was it. I could see other horses struggling a little bit, and he was just smooth."
California Chrome has won each of his last five races, doing so by a margin of more than five lengths each time out. The last time he lost a race was in November's Golden State Juvenile.
But in horse racing, basking in the past is only fun if it breeds excitement about the future. For a sport that hangs on the fringes of national attention minus the Big Four and specifically the Triple Crown, the dangling carrot of history has to be there.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness are the only two races guaranteed to each year. The level of Belmont intrigue is 100 percent determined by whether the Kentucky Derby winner can do the same a couple of weeks later at Pimlico. That is a wildly unfair distinction considering the Belmont is arguably the most unique race on the circuit every year, but one that nonetheless holds weight.
|1||5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman|
|2||17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart|
|3||4||Danza||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher|
|4||20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens|
|5||6||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette Jr.|
|6||12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani||Peter Eurton|
|7||19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel||Billy Gowan|
|8||14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale Romans|
|9||13||Chitu||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert|
|10||7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher|
|11||8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario||Mike Maker|
|12||16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher|
|13||18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens||John Sadler|
|14||3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.||Gary Contessa|
|15||15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.||Steve Asmussen|
|16||2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie||Mike Maker|
|17||9||Vinceremos||Joe Rocco Jr.||Todd Pletcher|
|18||10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez||Jose Garoffalo|
|19||1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker|
|WD||11||Hoppertunity||Mike Smith||Bob Baffert|
California Chrome is the darling now. Hit the fast-forward on your life DVR, though, and it's not hard to go from darling to disappointment overnight.
California Chrome is currently listed as a 6-5 favorite to take the second leg of the Triple Crown, per Covers. He would be the first to walk into the Belmont Stakes with two straight since I'll Have Another two years ago and just the second since 2006. Gambling expert R.J. Bell reported that California Chrome is +180 (9-5) to win all three legs.
Considering there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in, I dunno, almost 40 years, those aren't exactly great odds from a bettor's perspective. California Chrome is more likely to win the Triple Crown than he was to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, according to oddsmakers.
That should tell you all you need to know about California Chrome. And, more distressingly, his competitors.
While dominant, California Chrome's time of two minutes and 3.66 seconds was the slowest on a fast track since 1974, according to Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville. The pace throughout the "Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" was decidedly...not. California Chrome stayed pace with early leaders Chitu and Uncle Sigh and then galloped away with relative ease.
"I didn't think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race," rival trainer Dale Romans told Tim Sullivan of USA Today. "And I was very, very wrong. Whether the crop's a good crop or not, that's a special horse."
The special horse in the decidedly not special field. Sounds like a good recipe. California Chrome, at the very least, seems like a solid bet to take the Preakness.
Winning the second leg of the Triple Crown is typically seen as by far the easier for the Derby winner. Not only is the Pimlico track almost the exact same length as Churchill Downs—the Preakness is 1/16-mile shorter—trainers and owners are typically more conservative with their entrants. Many of the horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby will be held out so trainers can better prepare them for the Belmont slog. Without the dangling carrot of a Triple Crown, in fact, I sometimes wonder for what reasons beyond purse and pride these owners enter their horses into the Preakness to begin with.
Perhaps the only thing standing in California Chrome's way in Pimlico could be a horse that wasn't in the Derby field at all. Hoppertunity was a 6-1 second favorite in the morning line after drawing the No. 11 post. Unfortunately, an ill-timed foot injury caused trainer Bob Baffert to scratch him from the field.
"We're pretty sure it's the foot, but we just want to make sure that it's nothing else so we can continue on with him for the Preakness," Baffert told reporters. "The timing is obviously horrible because we don't have enough time to work on the foot."
Hoppertunity's absence allowed an even more gaping hole for which California Chrome to gallop through. He did just that Saturday. With any luck, we'll get to see these two go head-to-head in a couple of weeks and see which was truly the superior horse.
If not, California Chrome should have no trouble making history. Again.
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