LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Art Sherman reached the barn at 5 a.m. Sunday, the day after the Kentucky Derby, he found his star pupil still slumbering.
“I didn’t want to wake him up,” he said of California Chrome, the newly garlanded champion of Churchill Downs. “I know he’d had a hard day.”
The 77-year-old trainer looked wide awake, walking crisply around Barn 20, though he professed to be “numb” to the previous day’s triumph. He said the enormity probably won’t hit him until he finds a few moments alone in his lounge chair, outside the family home in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.
Neither Sherman nor his horse will be allowed to relax for long. Such is the nature of the Triple Crown, which will have them headed to Pimlico Race Course next week in preparation for the Preakness on May 17.
Within minutes of California Chrome’s victory Saturday evening, speculation began that he might be the horse to achieve what no 3-year-old has since Affirmed in 1978.
His brash co-owner, Steve Coburn, didn’t hesitate to predict a Triple Crown, but Sherman didn’t make any similar statements Sunday.
”I don’t know,” Sherman said. “I just know that when we lead him over there, he’ll be the horse to beat. He don’t give up.”
Though he went off as a 5-2 favorite in the Derby, California Chrome was no sure thing to the trainers who saddled horses against him. They questioned his pedigree and how he’d run away from home.
The doubts vanished as they watched him execute a near-perfect race.
“He looked like a winner every step of the race,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who started Tapiture in the Derby. “You watch the replay, and everybody had trouble but him.”
Asmussen didn’t quite predict a Triple Crown, but he grinned as he said: “He’s definitely my pick for the Preakness.”
The Preakness field is already taking shape, with California Chrome likely to face several threats he did not encounter in Kentucky.
Social Inclusion won his first two races in blinding fashion after not running as a 2-year-old, but his third-place finish at the Wood Memorial left him short of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. His talent is tantalizing, his resume thin.
Social Inclusion scratched from a Saturday race at Florida’s Gulfstream Park because of a bruised right hoof, but he is still expected at Pimlico in less than two weeks.
Bayern, trained by Bob Baffert, is another intriguing possibility. He was considered a top Kentucky Derby contender until a poor showing in the Arkansas Derby on April 12.
Pablo Del Monte is pointed toward Baltimore after his connections turned down a Kentucky Derby spot opened by Hoppertunity’s injury. The Kentucky colt would have been a 50-1 morning-line long shot, and his owners did not relish the prospect of starting from the No. 20 post.
Ride on Curlin also is likely to run in the Preakness after a seventh-place finish at Churchill Downs. Other possibilities include Kid Cruz, winner of his last two stakes races in Maryland; Strong Mandate, trained by D. Wayne Lukas; and Dynamic Impact, winner of the Illinois Derby.
Among the horses considered 50-50 possibilities for the Preakness are trainer Dallas Stewart’s Commanding Curve, second in the Derby as a 38-1 long shot, and trainer Graham Motion’s Ring Weekend, who qualified for the Derby but never traveled to Kentucky from Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton because he ran a fever last weekend.
Several stars of Derby week are unlikely to appear at the Preakness.
Fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong probably won’t make the trip, said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. The colt was a popular favorite in Kentucky, with his Boston-based ownership group pledging 5 percent of his Triple Crown winnings to support victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Given her commanding win in the Kentucky Oaks, Untapable inspired speculation she might follow the same path as 2009 Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra.
But her trainer, Asmussen, put that talk to rest Sunday morning.
“We didn’t feel that it was in her best interest to run back in two weeks,” he said. “Her temperament is the biggest question there.”
Hoppertunity will not make the trip, either, after Baffert initially suggested he might. He was the second choice in the morning line at the Derby until Baffert scratched him because of a bruise to his left front foot.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s horses, including Derby third-place finisher Danza, were uncertain for the Preakness as of Sunday, said Maryland Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan.
Regardless of his exact competition, California Chrome will face new challenges as he prepares for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
How will he bounce back with just two weeks rest? How will he respond to a long stay away from his California home base?
Sherman didn’t pretend to know the answers Sunday. But he expressed great faith in his colt’s temperament.
“You know, he’s got the right demeanor for a horse,” Sherman said. “He’s not a nervous-type horse. … He does everything right.”
If California Chrome makes it through the 1 3/16-mile test in Baltimore, he’d then face the bane of so many Triple Crown hopefuls, the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes on June 7. That’s a long way off, but Sherman sounded none too concerned.
“I always thought this horse would run all day long,” he said. “He’s got the right kind of style.”
While the champion stays in Kentucky for the week, the trainer will fly back to California to work with his other horses, leaving California Chrome in the care of his son and assistant, Alan.
The Derby champ will take three days off, then resume his morning jogs at Churchill Downs.
Sherman doesn’t expect to see his superstar again until they both fly to Baltimore, probably four or five days before the Preakness.
The trip will be another journey to familiar ground. Just as Sherman came to Kentucky as a stable hand for Swaps in 1955, he said he rode a filly named Tinkerlero at Bowie Race Track in 1959.
In addition to riding, he met FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Vice President Richard Nixon, who had attended the same California high school, Whittier, as Sherman.
“Old Neighbors Meet,” he recalled the next day’s headline reading.
“You know you look back and you see all the stories now, and the movies … I liked Richard Nixon because he liked horse racing,” Sherman said.
He never went to Pimlico. So he’ll make his first visit in grand fashion, putting California Chrome in Stall 40, the traditional space for Kentucky Derby champions.
It’s a well-known story now that Coburn and his partner Perry Martin turned down a $6 million offer for 51 percent of California Chrome. The refusal is a point of pride for the middle-class Westerners, relative newcomers to the thoroughbred game.
Sherman was asked Sunday how much the horse is worth after the Derby.
“Ten million might be too cheap,” he replied quickly.
Yes, confidence in the champ is high.
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