Still no reason to go against California Chrome

PATRICK SMITH / GETTY IMAGES Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome is bathed in preparation for tomorrow's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
PATRICK SMITH / GETTY IMAGES Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome is bathed in preparation for tomorrow's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
Posted: May 16, 2014

BALTIMORE - So what has changed since the May 3 Kentucky Derby? Well, 16 of the 19 Derby horses will not be in the Preakness starting gate, the second through fourth Derby finishers instead awaiting the June 7 Belmont Stakes. Instead of having a month between races, Derby winner California Chrome has only 2 weeks. This race really does appear to have the quality early speed the Derby promised on paper, but did not deliver on the track.

And CC will be something like 2-5 instead of 5-2. That is what happens when the Derby winner runs at Pimlico after five consecutive wins by a combined 26 lengths. Each win looks like a replay. California Chrome runs with the leaders until the stretch and then runs away from them. How does that keep happening?

"That's just talent," said CC's trainer, Art Sherman. "When you have a horse that can run, when you sit there with a handful of horses turning for home and everybody's whipping and driving and you're just waiting for the command to go on . . . he staggers them horses when he opens up five on them, you know what I mean?"

Sherman, a former jockey, knows the feeling.

"They've already been into a drive and it kind of takes a little bit of the heart right out of a few horses," he said. "I know you could take the heart out of me when I was going up to a horse, and, all of a sudden, he does five on you and you've been in the drive to get him."

Still, Sherman has concerns. These are animals, not machines.

"I really think 2 weeks from the Derby into the Preakness, I would've loved to have seen at least 3, you know what I mean?" Sherman said. "I just think, it takes a horse about 11 days to completely recover out of a race . . . It's pushing the envelope a little bit . . . Some horses have got enough talent they can overcome that, but I still think, boy, I'd sure like to have an extra week prior to that race."

There are only 2 weeks, something top-class American horses never do anymore, except from the Derby to the Preakness, an ode to tradition, not 21st-century horse-racing reality.

"I would like to see the extra week put in," Sherman said. "I just think it's hard on the horse. I know it's tradition, but it's grueling."

Two weeks to the Preakness, 3 more to the Belmont.

If there is a paramount reason the Triple Crown has not been won in 36 years, it is the schedule.

"So here I am trying it, so I'm hoping that the racing gods are looking down at me," Sherman said.

The gods got him the horse. The horse has the talent. The trainer has done the rest.

The Derby was slowly run, so that is something to consider. There is also the matter of a quality, if inexperienced, speed horse such as Social Inclusion. If there is going to be an upset, a loose-on-the-lead Social Inclusion is most likely to make it happen. This colt is really talented, but trying to win this race in only his fourth start after a Feb. 22 debut is asking a lot.

Still, until some horse outruns California Chrome or runs him down, it is hard for me to find a reason to pick against him. So, I won't. I was a fan months before the Derby. After the race, CC got another fan in one of America's sharpest horse trainers. Dale Romans, who sent out Medal Count in the Derby, did not like CC at all in that race, and said so. Afterward, he acknowledged the obvious.

"I didn't think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race, and I was very, very wrong," Romans said. "Whether the crop's a good crop or not, that's a special horse. I was wrong. I was a very big skeptic. I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby. I'm very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran. Now he has a new fan."

In fact, California Chrome is getting new fans every day. The backstory is terrific. The horse might be even better than the story.

We are down from 19 horses in the Derby to 10 in the Preakness.

"It's always easier when you've got less horses," Sherman said. "It's less traffic. But with his style, if he comes away from the gate in good shape, there are three speed horses in here, and he likes a target to run at, I really think that with good racing luck he should be in a position where he'll be in the clear."

The other likely speed horses are Pablo Del Monte and Bayern. The two other Derby horses trying the Preakness are Ride On Curlin (seventh) and General a Rod (11th), another horse that had shown early speed in all his dirt races before the Derby.

Calvin Borel has given some legendary Derby rides. This year was one of them. He tried that rail run on Ride On Curlin and ran right into traffic at a critical moment. Then, he swung outside the entire field in the stretch and the colt was still running hard at the finish. With some more luck and a hot, contested pace, Ride On Curlin could be a serious factor. Joel Rosario replaces Borel.

Dynamic Impact ran the race of his life to win the Illinois Derby. Even that effort might not be enough in the Preakness. Ring Weekend won the Tampa Bay Derby on the lead. It will be much harder to clear this field. The filly Ria Antonia appears overmatched.

Kid Cruz is another horse that will benefit if the pace is fast. A $50,000 claim in November, this colt made two eye-catching rallies in Maryland stakes without any pace in front of him. He should get a better setup, but would have to run faster than ever before. Could be a nice exacta horse behind California Chrome.

Bottom-line, California Chrome is the most accomplished, the most consistently fast and the most versatile. I can see him sitting third or fourth coming out of the first turn, holding that good position on the backstretch, inching closer on the turn and running away from the field in the stretch. It has been the same scenario in five consecutive races at three tracks. I am thinking it is about to be six straight races at four tracks and a chance for history at Belmont Park.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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