California Chrome, an appealing plebeian in the Sport of Kings, made a lot of people feel good Saturday, following up his Kentucky Derby triumph with an impressive Preakness victory that, for a 13th time in a historic 36-year drought, sets up the possibility of a Triple Crown celebration at the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
The previous 12 horses who won both races, as everyone in this troubled sport desperate for a super-horse savior knows all too well, failed.
This sixth straight victory for the California-bred horse, against a field filled with the same kind of rested opponents he'll need to fend off in New York, wasn't as easy as the previous five, in which his average winning margin was five lengths.
California Chrome led the last five-sixteenths and finished 11/2 lengths ahead of hard-charging Ride On Curlin. Social Inclusion was a distant third.
As the light softened on a gorgeous Baltimore afternoon, the winner broke cleanly and swiftly from the gate. Espinoza was settling in for another smooth trip, just off the lead, when long shots Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia moved alongside.
That challenge met, Espinoza, his mount third near the half-mile pole, said he thought he "was perfect." But just then, he was stunned again when Social Inclusion, a fresh speed horse that had been expected to move sooner, roared up to test the leaders.
"Wow," thought the jockey, who won the first two Triple Crown legs with War Emblem in 2002. "This is crazy."
California Chrome answered again, this time with an acceleration that would have doomed a more one-dimensional runner. He rushed to the lead and held it to the wire, despite Ride On Curlin's late run, as the crowd erupted with a joyful bellow that shook this 144-year-old track.
"I've never won at million-dollar races," said Sherman, 77, an ex-jockey. "I was always a claimer-type trainer. It's just an honor being blessed with a horse like him."
Both Sherman and Steve Coburn, who owns California Chrome with Perry Martin, indicated that, as excited as they were about the history their bargain horse can make, they're dreading the attention and distractions that await in New York.
"My wife's already bugged me," said Sherman with a look of dread on his face. "She wants to see a play."
"So your wife's been talking to my wife, right?" guffawed the big, gregarious, and cowboy-hatted Coburn.
It won't be any easier for California Chrome. In the Belmont, he'll likely have to face newcomers, including Peter Pan Stakes winner Tonalist, who have been training solely for the Belmont, as well as Derby competitors like runner-up Commanding Curve, who skipped Pimlico to begin training for the 11/2-mile event.
"There are trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart," Coburn said. "They need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that started in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races."
If he becomes the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win them all, the Dumb Ass Partners - as Coburn and Martin dubbed themselves - who own California Chrome will, in the end, be the smartest people in racing.
"I tell you," said Coburn when asked about his horse's Belmont chances, "I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes right now."
Since 1978, when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown, 12 horses have won the first two legs only to fall short in the Belmont. California Chrome will take his shot on June 7.
Triple Crown winners
Sir Barton, 1919 Gallant Fox, 1930
Omaha, 1935 War Admiral, 1937
Whirlaway, 1941 Count Fleet, 1943
Assault, 1946 Citation, 1948
Secretariat, 1973 Seattle Slew, 1977
Close calls since '78
Horse Year Belmont finish
Spectacular Bid 1979 Third
Pleasant Colony 1981 Third
Alysheeba 1987 Fourth
Sunday Silence 1989 Second
Silver Charm 1997 Second
Real Quiet 1998 Second
Charismatic 1999 Third
War Emblem 2002 Eighth
Funny Cide 2003 Third
Smarty Jones 2004 Second
Big Brown 2008 Ninth
I'll Have Another 2012 Scratched
California Chrome 2014 ?