California Chrome has outrun his pedigree and a combined 27 foes in his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, putting the strapping colt on the cusp of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
How is a modestly bred colt, trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman and ridden by 41-year-old veteran rider Victor Espinoza, a Belmont Stakes win away from such an historic feat?
Good horses have a way of working out a good trip, and Espinoza has pushed all the right buttons so far, taking over from Alberto Delgado last December, first in the state-bred King Glorious Stakes. In his last two starts with Delgado in the irons, the colt finished sixth in each outing. Since the switch to Espinoza, the duo has reeled off six straight wins, the margin of victory a combined 27 1/2 lengths.
With victories in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome landed in Louisville as the betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby, via Odds Shark.
The post position draw was kind to the connections, drawing the No. 5 post for the Run for the Roses. The colt broke well, and Espinoza had the colt in the perfect position behind a surprisingly slow early pace.
Espinoza moved at the perfect time, splitting rivals nearing the five-sixteenths and taking over the lead at the eighth pole. The colt drew clear by five lengths and held on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over the fast-closing Commanding Curve, with Espinoza gearing the colt down late and raising his arm in the air triumphantly as they crossed the wire.
The trip could not have been any better, and it appeared Espinoza had left something in the tank to be used in two weeks in Baltimore.
It was off to Pimlico, and now the pressure was larger, as was the target on the backs of the colt and Espinoza. Only two foes the colt beat in Louisville were wheeling back in two weeks, and there were seven new shooters waiting in the wings
With three speed horses in the lineup, the break and a clean start was paramount for the Derby winner. Espinoza broke alertly, while the projected pacesetter, Social Inclusion, did not.
Espinoza found himself briefly on the lead, but long shot Pablo Del Monte spurted to the lead, with Espinoza taking back to sit in the garden spot in third. With another perfectly timed ride, Espinoza split rivals approaching the three-eighths and found a companion in Social Inclusion, who engaged the Derby winner on the far turn.
Espinoza confidently let his mount out, and he cleared Social Inclusion rather easily and headed for home with the lead. The duo was three lengths in front and held off the late-running Ride On Curlin safely by 1 1/2 lengths.
Sherman could not have been happier with Espinoza’s ride.
“He broke great and had a perfect trip. I was so happy when I saw where he was able to set him," Sherman told the Pimlico media department. “Right now he’s really on his toes and doing good. He’s a remarkable horse to come back in two weeks and win."
Two flawless trips send the colt to the Belmont Stakes on June 7 for a date with destiny. Despite being the betting favorite in both races, the colt has had his detractors, some questioning whether he had the pedigree to handle the distances of the first two classic races.
The Belmont Stakes is 1 1/2 miles, the longest of the trio of races. Some will again question his genes, while some horseplayers will certainly question his betting odds, which are going to be minuscule.
For Espinoza, it may be all about the trip, something he knows a little something about when it comes to the third jewel of the Triple Crown. In 2002, Espinoza rode the speedy War Emblem to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but lost all chance for Triple Crown glory when the colt stumbled coming out of the gate in the Belmont Stakes.
Something could stand in their way, but as we have seen in the Kentucky Derby and now the Preakness, California Chrome and Espinoza are the perfect team, and although I probably should not say it, together they move like a tremendous machine.
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