Preakness Preview: Hooked on a Feeling
This is the best part of coming to the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) with a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner—this feeling.
It is a sense of excitement. Anything could happen; this horse could be any kind of hero. You could tell the story over again even when the years have passed: I was there, I remember the race before the Triple Crown drought came to an end.
There is always hope for the Derby winner when he heads to the Preakness, and through him hope for racing to realize the making of another legend. California Chrome, the strapping chestnut who has galloped down the road to Baltimore without missing a beat, arrives like a character straight out of equine central casting—alert, intelligent, on the muscle in his gallops around Pimlico Race Course, stopping frequently on the way to and from the track to pose for photos under charming exercise rider William Delgado.
With blue-collar owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin and 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman holding on for the ride along with son Alan, his main assistant, the colt they call "Junior" approaches the 1 3/16-mile Preakness on a five-race winning streak with a combined 26-length victory margin. The way in which he won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) under Victor Espinoza raises a question, both of intrigue and concern.
Final time for the 1 1/4-mile Derby was 2:03.66, the slowest on a fast track since Cannonade's 2:04 in 1974. California Chrome was given only a 97 Beyer, the lowest earned by any Derby or Preakness winner since the speed figures began in 1987.
Yet California Chrome accomplished his objective in absolute dominance over 18 other rivals, cruising under wraps with Espinoza celebrating in the saddle before he even passed the finish line. Just the third California-bred to win the Derby and the first since Decidedly in 1962, he seeks to become the first Cal-bred to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. In every race since his winning streak began, the son of Lucky Pulpit has cruised by open lengths after turning for home.
"He does what he has to do and you can see in the afternoon what he does," Art Sherman said. "I don't have to prove anything. He's on a five-race winning streak. There is always pressure, but sometimes I look back at the races and he even blows my mind the way he moves away from the field."
Now wheeling around to tackle the Preakness, California Chrome has only nine runners to contend with. Just one of those—the filly Ria Antonia, who won the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) via disqualification and has not won since then—is a grade I winner. Still, the Derby winner's trainer acknowledged some fast new entrants like Social Inclusion, Bayern, and Pablo Del Monte will present pace challenges in the Preakness that did not materialize last time out.
"I think there is a going to be a different scenario of the race," he said. "The Preakness field is different to me because of the speed-laden horses that are in there...but my horse, people don't realize, has got a little gas himself. He's run some super races. He's been head and head with horses in :09 (1:09) and change and did draw off, and he did do a mile in 1:33 and change. He can go with the best, I think. He's proven it. He's kind of like push-button. You don't have to be on the lead, but when you ask him to run he's going to give you a burst coming down the lane."
California Chrome breaks from post position 3 with Espinoza in the irons, and is the 3-5 favorite on the morning line.
"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," Sherman said.
Rontos Racing Stable's Social Inclusion leads the speed corps for 85-year-old trainer Manny Azpurua, who could become the oldest trainer to ever win the Preakness if he takes down the Kentucky Derby winner. The Pioneerof the Nile colt began his career in eye-catching fashion with a pair of runaway victories, including a 10-length romp over then-leading Derby contender Honor Code in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race he ran in 1:40.97, breaking the track record at Gulfstream Park and earning a 110 Beyer.
After breaking a step slowly from his outside post in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) last time out April 5 at Aqueduct Racetrack, the colt raced wide around the first turn before setting a strong pace into deep stretch and faltering to third late. Although Social Inclusion is generally regarded as a speed horse, Sanchez expects the Kentucky-bred colt to be a late factor as well in the 1 3/16-mile middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
"I want him to have the lead at the three-quarters—breaking well, going to the turn first or second and at the three-quarters, there he goes," Sanchez said. "He's going to finish. In the Wood, the track didn't help him. This time the track is going to help us."
Luis Contreras, who has been aboard Social Inclusion in all three of his starts, has the return mount from the 8 hole.
Bayern, an Offlee Wild colt trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert for Kaleem Shah, comes off the April 28 Derby Trial (gr. III) at Churchill Downs where he was disqualified from first to second for interference in the stretch run. Blinkers come off for the colt, who was third in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 12, while Rosie Napravnik retains the mount from post 5.
Pablo Del Monte, the Derby also-eligible whose Coolmore connections opted along with trainer Wesley Ward to wait for the Preakness, is another new shooter. A son of Giant's Causeway , he comes into this race after a third-place finish in the April 12 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on the Polytrack at Keeneland. Jeffrey Sanchez will be in the irons from the 9 hole.
Two contenders come back from the Derby for another try: Dennis Dougherty's Ride On Curlin and Starlight Racing and Skychai Racing's General a Rod. The latter, a Roman Ruler colt trained by Mike Maker and purchased by his connections a week before the Derby, was 11th in that event. Ride On Curlin, a son of 2007 Preakness winner and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin , brings trainer Billy Gowan as the best of a four-horse stable. A $25,000 yearling, he had never finished off the board before his seventh in the Run for the Roses.
"He's an awful good horse," Gowan said of California Chrome, "but I'd like to hook him at the top of the stretch and see what we've got. I've got a whole lot of respect for California Chrome, but I'd just like to try one more time and see how he runs."
Joel Rosario replaces Calvin Borel on Ride On Curlin from the outside after his connections were less than thrilled over Borel's Kentucky Derby ride. General a Rod will be ridden by Javier Castellano from post 2.
"I hope we're stalking the pace...three or four lengths off of it would be the ideal situation, stalking the pace, and then follow (California Chrome) down the stretch and see what we've got," said Gowan.
The remainder of the field includes John Oxley's Illinois Derby (gr. III) winner Dynamic Impact, who departs from the rail under Miguel Mena for trainer Mark Casse; local stakes winner Kid Cruz, who took the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico April 19 for trainer Linda Rice and will be ridden by Julian Pimentel from the 7 hole; and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Ring Weekend, West Point Thoroughbreds and St. Elias Stable's Graham Motion trainee who missed the Kentucky Derby with a fever. Alan Garcia rides Ring Weekend from post 4.
The Preakness, which will be shown live on NBC starting at 4:30 p.m. EDT, is the 12th race on a 13-race card with a scheduled post time of 6:18 p.m. The undercard, which features seven stakes before the main event, will be televised on NBCSN from 1-3:40 p.m. A post-race show on that network follows from 6:30-7 p.m.
In a press conference the morning before tackling the second leg of the Triple Crown, Victor Espinoza was asked if he's ever had to ask California Chrome for everything he's got. He said he thinks the colt has more to give.
"All the time that I've been riding him, I just give a hand ride a little bit, and that's it," the jockey remarked. "I really never have ridden all he has. So I really don't know exactly if he has more or he just runs as hard as he can."
On Saturday, in the Preakness, we'll find out.
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