California Chrome's dream of being the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 is one step closer to reality. The three-year-old colt held off a hard-charging Ride on Curlin and Social Inclusion to win the 2014 Preakness Stakes in 1:54.84, becoming the 34th horse in history to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Heading into Saturday carrying the burden of the entire horse racing community—much of which depends on all three Triple Crown races carrying intrigue—California Chrome looked weightless. Much like he did at Churchill Downs, jockey Victor Espinoza expressed patience early before kicking it into high gear on a charge to the front.
Moments after race, Art Sherman tells NBC: "He's a real racehorse, and I'm hoping that the mile and a half is up his alley, too." #Preakness— DRF Derby (@DRFDerby) May 17, 2014
For much of the early portion of Saturday's race, California Chrome sat in third as Pablo Del Monte came out hot to take an early lead. The scene played out as almost a carbon copy of the Kentucky Derby. Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia faded as Uncle Sigh and Chitu did two weeks ago, while California Chrome made a mad dash for history.
He also held off a mad dash from Ride On Curlin, who couldn't quite muster the strength to pass the favorite on the final stretch. California Chrome paid out $3.00, $3.00, $2.40. Ride On Curlin, a seventh-place finisher at the Kentucky Derby, was $5.60, $3.80. Social Inclusion came in third to earn bettors $3.40.
No matter. The real story from Pimlico is California Chrome being just one race away from the coveted Triple Crown.
He came into Saturday's second leg as one of the most favored horses in the sport's history. The odds oscillated from 2-5 to 3-5 and back again throughout the week as money rushed in on the favorite. It seemed that the only reason bettors were taking other horses was simply in hopes of striking it big with a significant financial windfall.
|1||3||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman||-|
|2||10||Ride On Curlin||Joel Rosario||William Gowan||1 1/2|
|3||8||Social Inclusion||Luis Contreras||Manny Azpurua||8|
|4||2||General a Rod||Javier Castellano||Mike Maker||8|
|5||4||Ring Weekend||Alan Garcia||H. Graham Motion||12 1/4|
|6||9||Pablo Del Monte||Jeffrey Sanchez||Wesley A. Ward||14|
|7||1||Dynamic Impact||Miguel Mena||Mark E. Casse||15 3/4|
|8||7||Kid Cruz||Julian Pimentel||Linda Rice||15 3/4|
|9||5||Bayern||Rosie Napravnik||Bob Baffert||20 3/4|
|10||6||Ria Antonia||Calvin Borel||Tom Amoss||30 3/4|
‘‘When you run a 3-5 shot, you’ve got a lot more pressure on you knowing you’re going to be the favorite, but I think we can handle it,’’ trainer Art Sherman told reporters, per The Boston Globe.
While it had only been two weeks since California Chrome galloped to horse racing's pinnacle, he faced a far different field this time around. Ride On Curlin and General a Rod were the only two other horses to return for the second leg.
That led to at least some level of uncertainty heading into the weekend.
The difficulty in winning the Triple Crown is not necessarily winning three straight races but the rapid succession of the events. California Chrome's shortest previous break was roughly three weeks, and nearly all of his events have been spaced at least one month apart. Going through the preparations and race in two weeks' time is a daunting task—especially when most competitors were running on fresh legs.
Minus Social Inclusion, who came into the race as the second favorite, few could pass muster. By the time the front-runners were sprinting to the finish line, a majority of the pack had been left in their wake. California Chrome defeated Ride On Curlin by only 1.5 lengths but every other horse by at least eight.
It was the type of dominant performance that California Chrome has proved capable of. The horse carried four straight wins at an average of more than six lengths going into the Kentucky Derby. While each of his Triple Crown wins has knocked down that mean quite a bit, it's not for a lack of trying. He held a five-length lead before Espinoza pulled up late in the Kentucky Derby, and only Ride On Curlin came remotely close Saturday.
The issue at hand is what comes next. Well, specifically, whether California Chrome can handle the daunting Belmont track. At 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont adds roughly 1/4 mile to the trek from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (5/16 for the Preakness). There is a reason that only 11 of the 34 horses to win the first two Triple Crown legs have captured the third.
In each of his two wins thus far, California Chrome has seen a hard-charging challenger nearly pull off the upset. Adding that 1/4 mile can be the difference between nearly pulling an upset and actually getting it done.
California Chrome jockey Victor Espinoza on winning the #Preakness, “This race, it was more complicated. … It was a challenge for me."— Eric Crawford (@ericcrawford) May 17, 2014
Will California Chrome win the Triple Crown?
That said, it's impossible to bet against this improbable story at this point. California Chrome comes from an unheralded pedigree, is trained by a 77-year-old man in the midst of his first Triple Crown run and is owned by two men who named their company Dumbass Partners. It cost $10,000 to breed California Chrome. These aren't your typical horse racing legends.
Then again, maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. Nearing four decades without a Triple Crown winner, perhaps this unlikely, out-of-the-blue ascent is exactly what horse racing needs. No multimillion-dollar breeding farm or training royalty at his side—just an unbelievably talented horse running his way into the record books.
Just three more weeks until we find out once and for all.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: