BALTIMORE -- The star of the show stood placidly in Pimlico's stakes barn, poking his chestnut and white face out of stall 40, traditionally reserved for the Kentucky Derby winner. As the last of the heavy overnight rain fell late Friday morning, California Chrome relaxed, saving his energy for Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
The 3-5 morning-line favorite scared off all but two of the 18 horses he crushed at Churchill Downs. If he doesn't win, it will be a shock and a major disappointment for a sport yearning for its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Art Sherman, his 77-year-old trainer, is confident that his California-bred with the obscure pedigree will make it to Belmont Park with a chance for immortality on June 7.
"I don't have to prove anything,'' Sherman said. "He's on a five-race winning streak. There is always pressure, but sometimes I look back at the races and it blows my mind the way he moves away from the field. I just keep my fingers crossed that he has a good trip.''
He couldn't ask for a better one than Victor Espinoza gave on Derby Day, when his trouble-free, perfectly timed ride looked as if it had been plotted on a video game. Sherman knows the race dynamics will be different, with need-to-lead types Social Inclusion and Bayern likely to supply the fast pace that was anticipated but never materialized in the Derby.
"My horse likes a target to run at,'' Sherman said. "The Preakness field is different to me because of the speed-laden horses in there. But my horse can go :22, :45, 1:09 and change, a mile in 1:33. I think I'm in just as good shape as anybody.''
Trip and post position can be paramount in the Derby, when the overcrowded field almost ensures traffic problems. Yet you still can find trouble in a four-horse race, and Murphy's Law often activates when the gates open for a bunch of wired thoroughbreds. If a horse stumbles or gets sandwiched between one veering out and one veering in, everything can fall apart at the start.
"How the field breaks away from there and where you're at, the first 70 yards are very important to me,'' Sherman said. "But if he comes away from the gate in good shape, I really think that with good racing luck, he should be in a position where he's in the clear.''
Health and track condition are other variables that can bring down a horse that on paper looks unbeatable. Sherman and his son Alan, his assistant trainer, have downplayed California Chrome's itchy throat that makes him cough occasionally. Alan Sherman said the colt had the same issue on Derby weekend.
"He's fine, his throat is fine,'' Alan Sherman said. "He had a little tickle. He is not scratching from the Preakness. I don't know why it was blown out of proportion.''
When the Derby winner is heard coughing two days before the Preakness and there are a few hundred media hanging around, it tends to draw attention.
An estimated 2 1/4 inches of rain turned Pimlico's main track into a sea of slop Friday, but the 10-hour deluge had stopped by noon. There's no chance of rain in Saturday's forecast, so expect the quick-drying surface to be rated fast at 6:19 p.m., scheduled post time for the 1 3/16-mile middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
"It's been fun and we're trying to be relaxed going into this race,'' Art Sherman said. "The challenge is there. When you've got a 3-5 shot, you've got a lot more pressure, but I think we can handle it."