BALTIMORE — California Chrome was the best 3-year-old thoroughbred in America going into the Kentucky Derby. He was the best at Churchill Downs. And now he’s the 2014 Preakness Stakes champion after distancing himself from Saturday’s 10-horse field.
He went off as a commanding 1-2 favorite after rival trainers spent a week saying only bad luck could derail him. Again, California Chrome made his own luck, turning on his patented burst to pull away down the stretch at Pimlico Race Course and hold off runner-up Ride On Curlin’s late push.
California Chrome won by 1 1/2 lengths in 1 minute, 54.84 seconds.
All that’s left for the dashing chestnut colt is his attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, rode War Emblem, one of 12 horses in those 36 years to win the first two legs and fall short at the Belmont Stakes.
“It is an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome,” Espinoza told NBC Sports after the win. “Today it was just a crazy race … I got more tired mentally than (physically) riding him.”
California Chrome paid $3, $3 and $2.40 while Ride On Curlin paid $5.60 and $3.80 as the runner-up. Third-place finisher Social Inclusion paid $3.40.
California Chrome’s week included several glimpses of the anxiety inherent to a Triple Crown campaign. Rumors of a potential scratch swirled Thursday when the horse coughed after his morning workout. His connections downplayed the hubbub, saying he had a small throat blister, just as he had before his win at Churchill Downs.
Rain, a foreign concept to the California boy, pounded Pimlico on Thursday night and Friday morning, reducing the track to a muddy bog.
None of it seemed to daunt California Chrome, who galloped smoothly every morning and serenely posed for pictures as admirers flocked to his barn.
His co-owner, Steve Coburn, predicted victory, just as he had in Kentucky.
“He loves people. He loves what he does,” Coburn said. “That’s why he’s America’s horse.”
His trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, marveled at the colt’s continuing improvement.
“It’s quite a thrill. I know we had to run harder this race,” Sherman told NBC Sports. “For me, just watching him perform, coming back in two weeks, I was a little ocnerend … he’s a real race horse, and I’m hoping that the mile-and-a-half (Belmont Stakes) is up his ally, too.”
Since before the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome has grown into a populist hero — the champion of humble lineage whose middle class owners turned down a $6 million purchase offer and whose trainer had waited six decades to work on this grand a stage.
Now, California Chrome’s Triple Crown story will turn to its last and most difficult chapter — the Belmont Stakes.
Since 1978, a dozen horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to falter in New York. The last, I’ll have Another in 2012, never made it to the starting gate because of a sore tendon. Smarty Jones lost by a length in 2004. Silver Charm came even closer in 1997.
Modern thoroughbreds aren’t used to going 1 1/2 miles or racing three times in five weeks. And the deck becomes more stacked every year, with so many Kentucky Derby also-rans skipping the Preakness and coming back fresh at Belmont.
If he’s to defy recent history, California Chrome will have to call on new depths of endurance and beat horses who haven’t worked nearly as hard as he. Analysts will spend the next three weeks debating whether he has the talent to pull it off.
“I just think it would be, for my career, the ultimate,” Sherman said. “I’ve been in the game 60 years. Triple Crown winner? If you’d have said that to me at the beginning, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Runner-up Ride On Curlin had suffered a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby as jockey Calvin Borel made an aggressive horizontal move from an outside post position to the rail and failed to escape traffic until it was too late. But the colt’s seventh-place finish obscured his speed in the late stages of the race.
Trainer Billy Gowan came away convinced his horse could do better given a cleaner trip. He replaced Borel with Joel Rosario. And though he spent the week professing respect for California Chrome, Gowan said he just wanted to see what his horse might do with a little luck.
Social Inclusion, the second-favorite entering the race, finished third.