Not Just California Dreaming

ASSOCIATED PRESS California Chrome, ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, wins the Preakness Stakes.
ASSOCIATED PRESS California Chrome, ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, wins the Preakness Stakes.

Chrome poised to end Triple Crown drought

Posted: May 20, 2014

BALTIMORE - It was 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Pimlico was being overrun by a record crowd of 123,469, the Preakness just 80 minutes away. Standing calmly just outside stall 40 that housed California Chrome, his Kentucky Derby winner, trainer Art Sherman was posing for photographs, signing programs and telling stories.

There was the time he got off a flight from Miami to ride at Bowie and, in those first 10 seconds could not breathe, it was so cold. He wore a woman's leotard to stay warm when he rode. He did not jump off horses after races; he slid off.

Ever have a horse win six in a row? Yes, a $20,000 claimer that he ran for $4,000 to get eligible for those starter allowances. Sherman "loved starter allowances." They'd run a mile, a mile-and-sixteenth, a mile-and-an-eighth, a mile-and-a-quarter, a-mile-and-a-half, 2 miles.

"Do you remember when they ran 2-mile races?" the trainer asked.

He did. And he remembered riding them at bull rings with four pebbles in his mouth. He'd spit them out one by one every time they passed the finish line.

The trainer, 77, talked about all the new clients that have called since Chrome won the Derby. He said how much he liked staying at the Cross Keys Inn, just down Northern Parkway from the track, how convenient it was. He told his growing group of listeners about a trip he and his wife went on during the week to Washington. He had been, but she never had. They saw the Lincoln Memorial, drove by the White House, but "I missed my nap."

The minutes melted away.

Is there a race about to happen, Art was asked.

If there was any human or animal cooler than Art Sherman as the call to line up the horses to walk over for the Preakness was edging closer, it was that horse about to emerge from the stall reserved for the Derby winner.

Steve Coburn, the cowboy hat-wearing half-owner of the colt (they always knew we were in the restaurant this week when they saw his hat coming, Sherman explained) approached and said: "Arthur, you know what we're here for, to win the Triple Crown."

The trainer did not argue.

"I've only [soiled] my pants once today," Coburn said.

"That was 1-5," Sherman suggested.

"Were we on camera when I said that?" Coburn said as he wandered off.

"NBC will put it on, you'll hear bleep, bleep, bleep," Sherman said.

It was 5:40, time for one show to stop and another to start. The horses were called together. The Preakness was 40 minutes away.

There were no surprises in the race. CC was 1-2. Jockey Victor Espinoza got him into that perfect stalking position by the first turn. Then, it was a question of when and how much.

Still, there are always questions to answer. The Derby winner continued to answer them all.

On the far turn, CC got a serious challenge to his outside from Social Inclusion, a very talented if inexperienced horse. Chrome ran away from him at the quarter pole.

Espinoza had to put his colt into a drive much sooner than he wanted to hold his position which, potentially, could have made CC vulnerable to a late rally. Ride On Curlin made that serious late run. CC held firm, never letting the horse make up any ground in the final 100 yards, winning by a comfortable 1 1/2 lengths, leaving third place Social Inclusion 8 lengths behind. And if you kept watching past the finish line, you would have noticed that CC never let Ride On Curlin get by even as the slowed to a gallop.

Unlike the slow time of the Derby (which did not make much sense then or now), Chrome ran quite fast in the Preakness, 1:54.84 for the mile-and-3/16ths, with a final 3/16ths of 19.19 seconds, a serious burst when horses are supposed to be tiring.

"They attacked me too soon," Espinoza said.

In the end, it did not matter. Since Dec. 22, when this six-race winning streak began, nothing has mattered. The saga continues June 7 at Belmont Park when CC tries to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Over the last 36 years, 12 horses have won the Derby and Preakness. Eleven of them lost the Belmont. I'll Have Another (2012) was scratched and retired the day before the race.

Espinoza rode one of those 11. War Emblem, a one-dimensional speed horse, missed the break in the 2002 Belmont, was taken out of his comfort zone and never had a chance.

"In a million years I didn't think I was going to have a second chance," Espinoza said.

In team sports, both teams have to play every game in the series. Horse racing is not like that. The horses that finished second through fifth in the Derby did not run in the Preakness. Each will have a 5-week rest for the Belmont. The second and third Preakness horses are pointing for the Belmont, too, along with several other talented 3-year-olds. It could be close to a full gate in 19 days.

"You have to have a very good horse to win these three races, and I'm hoping I've got one right now," Sherman said.

He's definitely got one. In fact, he has the California version of Smarty Jones, a decade after the Pennsylvania bred won hearts and minds everywhere, but especially in the Delaware Valley. Smarty was denied his Triple Crown by racing circumstance, not talent. This really could be the one who can overcome anything.

The story sells, but the attention has gotten so overwhelming that the other partner, Perry Martin, did not even make the trip to Pimlico. Perhaps, he was cashing his future book bet of $500 to win at 300-1. Yes, that is $150,000.

So, Triple Crown?

"A Triple Crown winner, if you had said that to me at the beginning of the year, I would have said, 'Are you crazy?' " Sherman said.

Now, Sherman absolutely believes it is going to happen.

Coburn said he has believed since the day the colt was born.

"He loves what he does, and that's why he's America's horse, because in my opinion, this horse, what he's doing for two guys that work their butts off every day just to put beans and bacon on the table, this horse has given everybody else out there the incentive to say, 'You know what, we can do it too,' " Coburn said. "It may not be a racehorse. It may be the idea that they have in their head or a new product or whatever the case may be, but we just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win. The little guy can do it."

Life, Coburn suggested, is mostly about persistence.

"I've always told my wife, I said when I die, on my headstone put my name and say a man that loved his wife, his children, his grandchildren, and he always had try."

The horse has major try. That is six straight by a combined 27 1/2 lengths. In a sport with a photo-finish camera, Chrome is leaving no doubts.

They bet $83.7 million on the card, $53.6 million on the Preakness. CC paid $3 and earned $900,000 more for Dumb Ass Partners, who turn down all offers for the colt and his mother. They have banked $3,452,650 and are looking at many millions more in breeding possibilities.

Yesterday, a mini-controversy broke out when Sherman suggested the colt might not run in the Belmont if New York officials won't let him use a nasal strip that helps open his airways. Horse racing, without any central authority, is relatively dysfunctional. And New York racing is more than relatively dysfunctional, so one can only guess how that might turn out. It could be something or it could be the Belmont's answer to the Preakness throat blister, a non-story story that meant absolutely nothing.

California Chrome is a story, a story that began on an obscure San Joaquin Valley farm near Fresno, Calif., continued when the colt was turned over to a semi-obscure trainer who was much closer to the end than the beginning, has moved from Hollywood Park, to Del Mar, to Santa Anita, back to Hollywood, to Santa Anita again, to Churchill Downs, Pimlico and, on the first Saturday in June, to historic Belmont Park on the western tip of Long Island where the search for that 12th Triple Crown winner might finally come to an end.

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