California Chrome continued to strut his stuff in Saturday's $1.5 million Preakness Stakes, posting a comfortable 1 1/2-length decision, and the phenomenal three-year-old can become only the 12th Thoroughbred to capture Triple Crown when he lines up for the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
"He's an amazing horse," jockey Victor Espinoza said.
Amazing and dominant; California Chrome has now thrashed the competition in six straight starts. Trained by the 77-year-old Art Sherman, the bright chestnut colt opened his Triple Crown assault with an easy 1 3/4-length victory in the May 3 Kentucky Derby, and a record crowd of 123,469 showed up at Pimlico Saturday to see him put on another display of authority.
"It's quite a thrill," Sherman said. "I know he had to run harder this race. Just watching him perform, I was a little concerned coming back in two weeks. I'll tell you one thing: he's a real racehorse. I hope the mile and a half (in the Belmont Stakes) is up his alley, too, because he's a very good horse.
"I have to have a tear (in my eye) because we worked hard all year and Victor rode him perfect. It's a dream for any trainer to do this, believe me."
California Chrome broke alertly in the 139th edition of the Preakness and tracked a pair of front-runners in third during the early stages. He advanced to challenge for the lead midway on the far turn and spurted clear entering the stretch, displaying the same dynamic turn of foot that audiences have become accustomed to seeing.
Espinoza kept the bright chestnut colt busy to the finish line as Ride on Curlin futilely gave chase in second.
"It's an awesome feeling to have a horse like California Chrome," Espinoza said. "It was a crazy race. I got more tired mentally than physically."
Favored at 1-2 among 10 rivals, California Chrome returned a $3 win payout to his many supporters.
Bred in California by owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, California Chrome pocketed $900,000 to boost his career earnings to $3,452,650. His record reads 12-8-1-0.
"The Triple Crown," Coburn said when asked what's next. "You know what? I don't mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant because I've said this. I've said it a hundred times if I've said it once. When I saw this colt, when I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, Carolyn, this horse is going to do something big. I don't know what it is, but we're going to stay in the game to make sure this colt gets to be the best that he can be. I've been a firm believer in that ever since, and he's not proven me wrong."
California Chrome has been heavily favored in every start this year, and figures to be odds-on once again in the June 7 Belmont Stakes, but it won't be easy. Since Affirmed recorded the last Triple Crown sweep in 1978, 11 horses have come up short in the 1 1/2-mile test after capturing the first two legs.
Some notable rivals will also be waiting for him in New York. The horses that finished second-through-sixth in the Kentucky Derby all skipped the Preakness in favor of the Belmont Stakes and impressive Peter Pan winner Tonalist could be a dangerous new shooter. But the build-up to the June 7 race will be all about California Chrome.
While Sherman had never had a horse in a Triple Crown race before this year, Espinoza will making his second attempt at a Triple Crown. He captured the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard War Emblem, but his mount lost all chance at the start of the Belmont Stakes when he stumbled out of the starting gate.
"It means a lot, and I'm ready. I'm ready for it," Espinoza said when asked about having a second chance at the Triple Crown. "Hopefully California Chrome comes back good. It's tough, but I'm just glad to have my second chance in my career. In a million years I didn't think I was going to have a second chance."
Pablo Del Monte established early Preakness splits in :23 2/5 and :46 4/5 while being chased by the filly Ria Antonia in second. The pacesetter was still clinging to a short lead through six furlongs in 1:11 before readily giving way.
California Chrome, who was racing about two lengths back of the lead down the backstretch, accelerated into contention on the far turn with Social Inclusion and the pair appeared ready to engage in a prolonged battle approaching the stretch. But any drama was short-lived as California Chrome quickly kicked away from his foe.
Reaching the mile mark in 1:35 3/5 with a three-length cushion, California Chrome went on to complete the 1 3/16-mile distance in 1:54 4/5 over the fast track.
Ride on Curlin rallied from far back to be a clear second at 10-1 odds, 6 1/2 lengths better than 5-1 second choice Social Inclusion, who edged General Aa Rod by a head for third.
Ring Weekend came next in fifth and was followed under the finish line by Pablo Del Monte, Dynamic Impact, Kid Cruz, Bayern and Ria Antonia.
California Chrome is the first registered foal from the winning Love the Chase, a daughter of Not for Love who has since produced a pair of full sisters to the Derby winner. This extended family is responsible for Cascapedia, the champion older mare of 1977.
California Chrome registered his first two stakes wins over state-bred rivals, taking Graduation at Del Mar last summer and the King Glorious at Hollywood Park in late December, and he opened his 2014 campaign with a 5 1/2-length romp over restricted foes in the January 25 California Cup Derby.
He proceeded to capture the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 8 by 7 1//4 lengths before rolling to an eye-catching 5 1/4-length decision over a deep field in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
"This is a nice horse," Coburn said. "He loves people. "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. We can do this also. It may not be a race horse. 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...I honestly believe this horse is America's horse."