California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday in the kind of dominating fashion that leads to rabid hopes that horse racing will have its first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
I am among the many who would love to see California Chrome and his charming story win the Triple Crown, but I'm not going to allow myself to be anything but cautiously optimistic about his chances.
The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown. The Preakness is up next on May 17. The third is the Belmont on June 7. The Belmont has tripped up numerous Triple Crown contenders, and it is my fear with Chrome. Before I get into that, let's look back on the 140th Run for the Roses.
California Chrome had an early stumble out of the gate, but it was minor and he quickly recovered. This was made easier by a slow, early pace.
Spending most of the race hanging back in third, Chrome easily passed Uncle Sigh and Chitu as they hit the homestretch. Chrome made his burst, and it quickly became apparent no horse would catch him. Have a look at the replay:
Chrome had things so in control that jockey Victor Espinoza was able to leave something in the tank.
Beth Harris of the Associated Press passed along a quote from Chrome's trainer Art Sherman on that subject:
'[Espinoza] said he didn't ask him for too much thinking about saving something for the next one, for the Preakness,' Sherman said, adding that his colt is 'peaking now. He's full of himself.'
This was an impressive victory, but it left question marks going forward. California Chrome's times were not dominant. He ran the last quarter mile in 26.20 seconds and posted a final time of 2:03.26.
Only one horse impressed Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersh at the close of the race:
Of course, given the fact that Chrome was essentially trotting across the finish line, who knows how he would have responded if challenged? As it is, we are left to wonder if Chrome has the kind of stamina and closing speed that will hold up at the Belmont, which is the longest of the Triple Crown races.
26.16-second final quarter-mile. 51.84 final half. Gotta say - Commanding Curve was really the only one that finished. #KyDerby— Marcus Hersh (@DRFHersh) May 3, 2014
Now, projecting him against the horses he's already run against would be a little easier. That's the problem, however. Chrome is likely going to face fields that feature far fresher horses. This will leave them in a position to have a better finishing kick.
This is a big part of the reason that since War Emblem in 2002 five horses have won the Derby and Preakness but have come up short in the Belmont.
Understandably, this all concerns Sherman. New York Daily News' Jerry Bossert passed along this quote from the oldest trainer to ever win the Kentucky Derby: “I’m not a two-week kind of guy. I’m a guy who likes to go seven to eight weeks between races. It kind of gets me a little shook up sometimes when I think about it.”
None of this tells us that Chrome cannot win the Triple Crown, and Espinoza's experience will certainly help. He had the mount for War Emblem in his near run to the Triple Crown. We got a glimpse of that experience as he didn't push Chrome when he didn't need to on Saturday.
Chrome's victory on the first Saturday in May was well-earned and dominant, but it is because of his dominance that we have even more variables than normal when assessing the Triple Crown chances of the Kentucky Derby winner.