California Chrome emerged as a dominant winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby on Saturday, so of course the question has already shifted to whether the horse is a Triple Crown winner.
The question isn't shocking. It's one that's asked every year around this time. The elusive feat of winning the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes hasn't been accomplished since 1978, but the chase of the crown is what makes America shift its focus to horse racing every year.
|1||5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman||2:03.66|
|2||17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart||1 3/4|
|3||4||Danza||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher||3|
|4||20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens||5 3/4|
|5||6||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette Jr.||5 3/4|
|6||12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani||Peter Eurton||6 1/4|
|7||19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel||Billy Gowan||6 3/4|
|8||14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale Romans||7 1/2|
|9||13||Chitu||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert||8|
|10||7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher||8 1/4|
|11||8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario||Mike Maker||8 1/4|
|12||16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher||9|
|13||18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens||John Sadler||11 3/4|
|14||3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.||Gary Contessa||15|
|15||15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.||Steve Asmussen||16 1/4|
|16||2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie||Mike Maker||22 1/2|
|17||9||Vinceremos||Joe Rococo Jr.||Todd Pletcher||28|
|18||10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez||Jose Garoffalo||28 1/4|
|19||1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker||38 1/4|
The shocking thing about asking the question this year is that the answer just might be yes.
Given California Chrome's track record of winning races, favorite status in the Derby and incredible run, there's a palpable buzz that this could finally be the year.
After all, he's already broken some trends, including a dry spell for big favorites come post time.
California Chrome is only the 2nd Derby favorite 5-2 or shorter since 1980 to win. Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 was other (H/T @chrisfallica)— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) May 3, 2014
It's no accident that the California-bred horse's odds were so high to win the race. He had established his dominance in the Santa Anita Derby as well as San Felipe in Santa Anita Park. With the endurance to keep up the pace in the beginning of the race and the closing kick to pull away from the pack down the final stretch, California Chrome was the easy winner on paper.
However, it's rare to find that the most gifted horse is also the one that executes. And that was the biggest contributor to his success. While many of the contenders in the race were forced out of contention by rough run, California Chrome was able to make his move to the front unabated.
Much of that can be attributed to jockey Victor Espinoza, who has been here before. He was able to lead War Emblem to victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2002:
Victor Espinoza is now 2-0 riding the favorite in Triple Crown races -- won as favorite with War Emblem in 2002 Preakness.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 3, 2014
All of these factors have contributed to the relatively positive odds that the horse will make history.
California Chrome now paying +180 to win Triple Crown (at Sportsbook.ag)— RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) May 3, 2014
However, bettors buying too much into the hype should pump the brakes. There are a few reasons to be cautious when committing to a Triple Crown prediction, aside from the rare historical precedent of course.
First, there are the highly favorable conditions under which California Chrome won the Derby. Not only was he able to avoid the rough start that several of the horses in the field suffered, but he also started in the most favorable position possible:
With California Chrome winning the Derby from the 5th post position, that position now holds the most victories in the Kentucky Derby (13).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 3, 2014
While it's tough to hold a horse's post position against him, it's unlikely that he'll continue to draw the most favorable position.
Furthermore, the turnaround time that a horse must make to race these high-stakes races is an incredible challenge. And for California Chrome trainer Art Sherman, it's not one he's used to, per The Courier-Journal:
"Say if we get lucky enough to go to the Triple Crown and see what happens," Sherman said. "I'm a one-race-at-a-time kind of guy. … I just hope he can come back in two weeks, you know what I mean? This will be a first for me."
Some horses, like Untapable, will have the opportunity to skip the Preakness and take on the Belmont fully recuperated.
California Chrome won't get that opportunity. He's going to have to be the best horse on the track in all three races with very little rest between them.
That's an extremely difficult thing to ask of a horse, especially when it hasn't been done since 1978 when Affirmed won all three races.
Last year's Triple Crown showed us just how difficult this is. Orb won the Derby by more than two lengths before succumbing to exhaustion in the Preakness and finishing forth.
If California Chrome is able to blow by the field in the Preakness with the same effortless stride that won him the Derby, then the current odds he's receiving to make history will make sense. Until then, it seems as though he may be receiving just a bit too much credit with two jewels left to capture for the crown.