By Alicia Wincze Hughes Lexington Herald-Leader
BALTIMORE — Neither trainer Art Sherman nor co-owner Steve Coburn could see.
From the minute the gates sprung open releasing the 10-horse arsenal for the 139th Preakness Stakes, the 77-year-old Sherman and his 61-year-old client had so many cameras in their face they could barely make out what kind of path their classic-winning colt was carving out over the Pimlico Race Course oval.
Behind the lenses and bodies in front of them, Sherman and Coburn strained as Kentucky Derby hero California Chrome got into his ideal stalking position during the second leg of the Triple Crown only to have his mettle tested in the 13/16-mile event while still gaining his rhythm down the backside.
“I didn’t even get to see the race,” Coburn said. “I said to my wife (Carolyn) ‘Where is he?’ She said, ‘He’s in the lead. He’s going to win the race’ … then I saw him.”
Coburn is the first to tell everyone he saw all of this coming some time ago. After all but guaranteeing victory on the first Saturday in May, the Triple Crown aspirations Coburn spoke of in terms of “when” not “if” are now barreling forward bright and strong for the racing world to see.
For the 13th time in the last 36 years, the elusive Triple Crown will be on the line when the Belmont Stakes takes place on June 7 as Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome added the Preakness Stakes to his résumé when he defeated Ride On Curlin by 11/2-lengths before a record crowd of 123,469 on Saturday.
In earning his sixth consecutive victory dating back to last December, California Chrome has earned the right to try and add his name to the velvet-rope list of racing demigods. Only 11 horses have completed the Derby, Preakness, Belmont sweep — and none since Affirmed did the deed in 1978.
Where his prior five victories had a combined win margin of 26 lengths, the chestnut son of Lucky Pulpit had to get down and fight en route to his eighth career win in 12 starts. Pushed by Social Inclusion to advance up from his position in third from just past the half-mile mark, California Chrome made what could have been a compromising sustained run — just the latest example of his class superiority.
“It was tough today. It was tough because this race was just a little complicated,” said jockey Victor Espinoza, who has been aboard California Chrome this entire win streak and himself has a second chance at a Triple Crown sweep, having piloted 2002 Derby-Preakness winner War Emblem before finishing off the board in the Belmont. “He (Social Inclusion) was pushing me, he made me move at the half-mile post.
“I really didn’t want to. I thought I was in a perfect position and I just wanted to wait as long as I can. But when the outside horse attached me, I had to let it go, slowly.”
Superior horses can make superior trips for themselves. And California Chrome’s smooth acceleration is the silver bullet that continues to take down would-be rivals.
Only part of what was supposed to happen on paper unfolded during the Preakness. While Pablo Del Monte indeed showed speed out of post No. 9 to take the early lead around the first turn, it was the filly Ria Antonia — not front-running Social Inclusion — who was pressing the issue in second as they went through an opening half-mile in 46.85 seconds with California Chrome sitting in the sweet spot outside in third.
“I had a camera point blank in my face but I got a chance to see the board and … I knew going into that first turn Victor was in that position,” Sherman said. “When I saw him at the half-mile pole having dead aim on the leaders, I said now, Victor, we’re in the driver’s seat.”
Social Inclusion, who was sitting just behind California Chrome’s flank, forced the 1-2 favorite to move to the lead early around the far turn but could offer no more resistance once they straightened out in the lane. With Joel Rosario gamely rallying Ride On Curlin on the far outside to come with late-running strides, all the hits proved in vain as California Chrome had already put 3 lengths of daylight between his challengers in the final furlong.
“Victor rides him with so much confidence and he looked to have plenty left at the end,” Bob Baffert, trainer of ninth-place finisher Bayern, said of California Chrome. “When he gasses them a little bit he puts them in a spot and … he’s a fast horse. He’s a different kind of horse, a freaky kind of horse.
“Believe me, I want to stay away from him.”
Ride On Curlin will probably also be Belmont-bound, finishing 61/2 lengths clear of third-place finisher Social Inclusion.
“I thought it was awesome, I’m really proud,” said Billy Gowan, trainer of Ride On Curlin. “I think we have to go to Belmont if he comes out of the race good.”
Final time for the 13/16 miles over a fast track was 1:54.84.
Coburn, who owns and bred California Chrome along with Perry Martin, has been admittedly brash in his declarations of what his colt would achieve. With three weeks to prep for the 11/2-mile Belmont, Coburn hasn’t yet failed to tell would-be doubters, “Told you so.”
“I don’t mean to be bold or cocky but … when I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, ‘This horse is going to do something big,’” Coburn said. “I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime.”