It will beginin earnest. The Triple Crown hoopla surrounding California Chrome will certainly have people talking through May 17 when the Preakness Stakes takes place in Baltimore, Maryland. It also doesn’t hurt that the owners of the colt have predicted that this horse will win the Triple Crown which culminates with the Belmont Stakes on June 7. To me, this is all good. Nothing wrong with swashbucklers, in fact, the sport needs them. If I were doing PR for horse racing, I would seek out co-owner Steve Coburn as much as possible in the days leading up to the Preakness Stakes. Any publicity is good publicity and the California Chrome camp is more than capable of providing it.
The 140th Kentucky Derby was a fascinating race for many reasons. First, it was surprisingly clean. With 19 horses, you’d expect lots of bumping and stopping, but for the most part, that wasn’t the case. For most, there weren’t many excuses to cling to afterwards. Ride on Curlin jockey Calvin Borel did state that his colt’s progress was halted because Vicar’s in Trouble stopped suddenly down the stretch. Borel claimed that had he had a better path, a second or third place finish could’ve been possible instead of the seventh. Borel knows more about horse racing than most, and who’s to doubt a three time Kentucky Derby winner? If Borel really does think that, then let’s make sure Ride on Curlin is in the gate for the Preakness.
Next, the race was run at a moderate pace. The fractions were not outrageous and when that happens, the closers struggle to make that move. Of course, no horse picks up speed at the end, they simply decelerate slower than the others, but when the fractions are 23.04, 47.87, and 1:11.80, those up front can maintain their form better, certainly better than last year when those fractions were in the 22s, 45s and 1:09s. The horses for the most part, were able to be rated and that set up a somewhat soft pace for the leaders.
How good is California Chrome? He is good, very good, and yesterday’s win was certainly not a fluke. He dominated in his prep races, and yesterday, he dominated again. He was right at the front the entire time. He rated, stalked and then after three-quarters, sailed to the front. Jockey Victor Espinoza knew this, knew he was sitting on dynamite and to me, looked like he was holding back before unleashing the colt down the stretch. When it was time to go, nobody challenged Chrome whatsoever. There really was no drama, as the colt was lying in wake waiting to take over. He was ranked number one coming in and leaves as the overwhelming favorite for the Preakness. That’s great for horse racing. Those who only follow the sport at this time, have a horse that on paper, can win the Triple Crown, and that will pique interests come May 17. When a 35-1 shot wins the Derby, the skeptics are out in full force and when there are skeptics, there are fewer eyeballs glued to the television for the Preakness. This won’t be the case with California Chrome.
Despite the greatness we saw yesterday, there were some downsides, and if you’re building a case against Chrome, it can be done. His winning time of 2:03.66 will not go down in history as blazing, and that time will do nothing to scare off opponents for the Preakness. Social Inclusion, the much ballyhooed colt who didn’t qualify for the Derby has to be licking his chops thinking he has a big one in him for Pimlico. In Chrome’s defense, he didn’t have to run faster, and sometimes, time can be overrated, but if you look at the time, you’re not scared. More concerning were the final fractions. As mentioned, the pace was not fast, but the final fractions were dawdling to say the least. After getting through six furlongs in 1:11.80, the horses began to struggle. The last two quarter mile fractions were 25.65 and 26.21 respectively, 51.86 seconds for the final half mile. In defense, Chrome wasn’t going all out in the end as Espinoza knew he had it, but still, even if you take a half or three-quarters of a second off those fractions, they’re still slow. The track was fast as the winning times of the other stakes races indicate, so let’s not blame the track for the slow times.
The Preakness is the one race where the Derby also-rans feel that it might be worth a shot. That’s the other question. How many of yesterday’s also-rans ‘handlers will convince themselves that coming back in two weeks is worth the while? Can Borel convince the trainers of Ride on Curlin that the colt is sitting on a big one for Pimlico or will they hold him off for down the road? We know that none of Todd Pletcher’s colts will run at Pimlico unless he is overruled by his owners and of the three, only Danza would be a viable candidate, but Pletcher is famous for skipping the Preakness and waiting for the Belmont. I could see Danza skipping the Preakness, Chrome winning there and Pletcher and Danza waiting for him at Belmont Park on June 7.
I see no reason why Wicked Strong and Samraat wouldn’t run the Preakness with the easier distance of 1 3/16 miles. Trainer Dallas Stewart has hinted his fast closing Commanding Curve might be better suited for the 1 ½ Belmont, a statement that I disagree with. When you see a horse charging as Commanding Curve did yesterday, it gets everybody to say the same thing; that if the race were another sixteenth or eighth of a mile, that colt would have won. But, that happens all the time. You always see a hard charger no matter the distance, and just because Commanding Curve looked great the last 12 seconds of the race doesn’t mean he will harness that pace over a longer distance. The one thing people tend to forget is minutes played in horse racing’s Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby, the winning times hover from 2:00 to say, 2:04. In the Preakness, they will be in the 1:53 to 1:57 range and at the Belmont—the marathon—they will likely be in the 2:27 to 2:32 range. Think about that, Dallas Stewart. You’re asking your colt to pace for 2 minutes and 10 seconds, then charge like a bull at the end. That’s a long time and by that 2 minute mark, you’re horse may not be in the mood to do that. It might be easier to run him in Baltimore, where he only has to rate for 1 minute and say, 42 seconds. That’s a difference of 28 to 30 seconds and that’s significant. Stewart knows his horse best, but sometimes those hard charging second place finishes are overrated.
The other impressive performance over the weekend was Untapable romping in the Kentucky Oaks. She toyed with the field and her winning time of 1:48.68 for 1 1/8 miles was stellar. Should Untapable run against the boys in the Preakness? I say yes, but I’d bet money that her handlers won’t do that. I’m not sure why trainers and owners are afraid to run super fillies against the boys, but for some reason, that’s the case. We know that fillies can do well and often beat the boys. Who can forget 2009 when Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra beat Derby winner Mine that Bird at the Preakness? And, who can forget Calvin Borel saying after the Oaks that Rachel was the best horse he ever sat on, then leaving Derby winner Mine that Bird to ride Rachel at the Preakness?
We know one thing, one truth: only California Chrome can win the Triple Crown and if healthy he goes to the Preakness—the most important of the three races—as the champion, the one to beat. He also goes there with a giant bulls eye as the others have one thing in common and that is to be the one who thwarts his attempt to make history. Since 1978, 12 horses have won the Derby and the Preakness and 12 times, they failed to win the big one at Big Sandy. It’s not supposed to be easy and as we’ve debated before, the sport of horse racing doesn’t need a Triple Crown winner. Sure, it would be nice for the sport, it would garner attention for a few days, but it won’t revolutionize the sport nor it will create more interest or produce more fans. In fact, the lament of not having a winner probably attracts more attention than if the opposite happened. If the Cubs actually won a World Series, what would happen to the long time sufferers of the team?
The Preakness is the game changer of the three. If Chrome wins, it will be bedlam, an absolute frenzy and a fascinating build up to the climax at Belmont Park. If another horse wins, then the Belmont becomes just another event on the sports calendar. That’s a lot of pressure both on the horse and the Preakness. But, it’s good pressure, excellent pressure and welcomed pressure. Let’s get a full field of 14 and see what happens.
The best thing is that this will all be settled on the racetrack where it should be. I found it interesting watching Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski giving their insights on Derby Day. Both were great athletes, but they competed in a sport that relied on subjectivity to produce a winner. Thankfully, that’s not the case in horse racing. The horses will toe the line and the first one to get to the finish line is the champion.
Hopefully, the next two weeks will go quickly, because it’s time for Pimlico.