California Chrome is on the cusp of history after becoming just the 13th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 1978—the last time the sport saw a horse with the most prestigious honor of all.
The globe's greatest sports story did not have his way on Saturday at the 139th running of the Preakness. He was pressured early, had to reroute and was even challenged late.
None of that mattered in the end.
Check the replay:
What does all this mean?
Not much in terms of California Chrome's chances at Belmont. For four races, he and jockey Victor Espinoza have been nothing short of dominant. The horse has won six straight, with the five before Saturday coming by a combined 26 lengths.
Yes, June 7 at Belmont is another quick turnaround. It's a better field. It's even a longer race.
In fact, that last tidbit is the main facet of the equation that concerns most people, such as ESPN's Richard Durrett:
Perfect ride for California Chrome. Sure hope horse can handle Belmont distance. We'll be fun to watch.— Richard Durrett (@espn_durrett) May 17, 2014
But the Preakness film shows us one thing: California Chrome and Espinoza aren't going to drop off anytime soon, even though the jockey admits it was the most difficult test to date, per Eric Crawford of WDRB:
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
The problems started early for the duo after breaking from the No. 3 gate, as Ria Antonia and Pablo Del Monte charged hard and forced them a bit inside. Espinoza kept his head about him and eased California Chrome into third place.
Nearing the final bend, Social Inclusion attacked prematurely from the outside to no avail. Espinoza again remained patient until kicking into gear for the homestretch. This maneuver helped to fend off Ride On Curlin, who also made a jump for first too early.
Racehorse owner Ramiro A. Restrepo noted that California Chrome did the heavy lifting in the final stretches:
The last 3/16' s Victor Espinoza just showed him the whip, never hit him. Cali Chrome runs like Affirmed. They wont pass him...— Ramiro A. Restrepo (@RamiroRestrepo) May 18, 2014
Affirmed last won the Triple Crown, so that is lofty praise. This is especially the case when one realizes an elite jockey like Espinoza has to do little with it all on the line because of California Chrome's ability.
But again, Espinoza's negotiating of early traffic cannot be praised enough. Pat Cummings of DubaiRaceNight.com put it best:
Victor Espinoza's rides on Cal Chrome have been nothing short of exceptional, always making sure he's in clear and with options. Superb.— Pat Cummings (@DubaiRaceNight) May 18, 2014
Perhaps what should be more concerning than the length of the track is the fact so many contenders were able to skip out on the Preakness in order to rest up for the Belmont Stakes.
California Chrome co-owner Larry Coburn sounded off on those who do so, and it's hard to argue his points, via Crawford:
I honestly believe that they need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont. I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart. They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care.
But with Espinoza expertly playing the field to his advantage and others seemingly in a panic to strike early or get blown away, it's hard to imagine any horse can take down California Chrome on June 7, regardless of how fresh the competition is.
It's not often an unheralded sport captures the attention of the globe for a positive reason. This is one of those rare times. California Chrome's performance on Saturday in Baltimore does nothing but reinforce that this rags-to-riches story is destined for a historic ending.