BALTIMORE -- The trip was a little tougher. The journey continues. For California Chrome, it's on to Belmont Park and a chance to become the 12th member of thoroughbred racing's most exclusive club.
The "people's horse" had to work harder Saturday than he did in the Kentucky Derby, yet at the finish he still was 1½ lengths clear of runner-up Ride On Curlin in the 139th Preakness Stakes. Now, for the ninth time in the past 18 years there's the possibility of a Triple Crown.
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Unlike Derby Day, 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman was a bit nervous as his 1-2 favorite entered the stretch. "Everyone was cheering and jumping up and down in front of me," he said, never a good thing for someone who stands only 5-2. "It was hard for me to see and to tell how much horse [Victor] Espinoza had. But when I looked up at the [video] board and saw him moving away, I knew we were OK. I have a tear in my eye. It's a dream for any trainer to do this, believe me."
Espinoza had to move with California Chrome at the half-mile pole, earlier than he wanted, but he decided he had no choice. "I had to go then, not hard, but sooner than in the Derby," the 41-year-old Mexican said. "That's hard on a horse, but he proved he could do it, and we got to the wire first. It's an amazing feeling to have a horse like him.''
California Chrome broke well from post 3 and stalked on the outside in third as long shots Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia, a filly who ran last of 10, dueled through a quick half-mile in 46.85 seconds. The filly was beginning to fade as 34-1 Pablo Del Monte led the winner by a length after 6 furlongs in 1:11.06. That's when it briefly got complicated for Espinoza. His leggy chestnut colt moved three-wide and shook off outside pressure from Social Inclusion before turning back a midstretch bid by Ride On Curlin. When California Chrome drew clear by three lengths at the eighth pole, exultation replaced edginess.
"I thought I had perfect position, but when attacked me, I had to open it up at that point," Espinoza said. "Today was just a crazy race, and I'm more tired mentally than physically. I had to use my brains too much."
It was the sixth consecutive win for California Chrome since Espinoza climbed aboard. He paid $3 for his eighth victory in 12 career starts after running 13/16 miles on a fast, speed-favoring track in 1:54.84, the fastest Preakness since Big Brown's 1:54.80 clocking in 2008. The colt who cost co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin $10,500 to breed earned $900,000, raising his bankroll to $3,452,650.
Ride On Curlin, seventh in the Derby after a bad trip under rail-riding Calvin Borel, rallied in midstretch for Joel Rosario but never got close enough to threaten seriously. Social Inclusion ran big to be third, 6½ lengths farther back, after getting sweaty during the post parade and becoming extremely agitated in the gate. The confirmed front-runner was bet from 10-1 in the morning to 5-1 and was considered the main danger to California Chrome. Despite not making the lead for the first time in his four-race career, Social Inclusion showed surprising grit and finished a head in front of General a Rod.
"I'm proud of my horse," owner Ron Sanchez said. "Right now, we're going to the Belmont."
The Preakness record crowd of 123,469 sent up a great roar as California Chrome crossed the wire. Temblors will shake Long Island if he can pull off the first sweep of the classics since Affirmed did it in 1978. Coburn believes "America's horse" can end the drought.
"I don't want to sound bold or cocky or arrogant,'' said the 61-year-old Nevadan, who often does, but not in a bad way. "But when I saw him when he was a day old, I told my wife that this colt is going to do something big, and he's never proved me wrong."