A half mile into Saturday's Preakness Stakes, Victor Espinoza had to make a decision.
Several speedy challengers had dashed in from the outside, quickening the pace on his horse — Kentucky Derby champion California Chrome. Should Espinoza accelerate earlier than planned? Make the wrong choice, and he might dash the Triple Crown hopes of many who'd fallen in love with an improbable sensation.
Espinoza abandoned caution and made his move. California Chrome did not let him down. As he has throughout an increasingly remarkable 3-year-old campaign, the chestnut colt pulled away from the lesser thoroughbreds around him and cruised to victory before a record announced crowd of 123,469 at Pimlico Race Course.
“Tell you the truth, California Chrome was too good,” said Ron Sanchez, owner of third-place finisher Social Inclusion. “I'm speechless. When you see a horse running and winning like this, you've got to feel respect.”
California Chrome was the best going into the Kentucky Derby. He was the best at Churchill Downs. And he was the best again in Baltimore, winning as a 1-2 favorite against a field full of fresher horses.
All week, rival trainers said only bad luck could derail him. But California Chrome makes his own luck, with speed that can be applied at any point in a race.
All that's left is his attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. His jockey, 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.
“I tell you, I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes,” said trainer Art Sherman when asked if his colt could complete the rare feat. “I think the horse is a phenomenal horse. I know right now we're running on a high. But I think when we get to Belmont, this horse is going to run big. I really do.”
Co-owner Steve Coburn has been the Chrome camp's boldest prognosticator all along. He didn't back off when asked what's next.
“The Triple Crown,” he said, his cheeks left ruddy by tears. “I don't mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant, because I've said this. … 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.”
With the victory, California Chrome paid $3 to win, $3 to show and $2.40 to place on a $2 bet. Runner-up Ride on Curlin paid $5.60 and $3.80 and third-place finisher Social Inclusion paid $3.40. The day's gambling handle of $83.8 million was the sixth largest in Preakness history.
“California Chrome ran a great race, and he's a great horse,” said Ride On Curlin's trainer, Billy Gowan. “My horse was in a good spot down the back. Joel [Rosario] said he got shut off for a second, but he came running in the stretch and gave me a heckuva thrill.”
The victor held off Ride on Curlin by 1 ½ lengths in a time of 1 minute, 54.84 seconds. Secretariat still holds the Preakness record of 1 minute, 53 seconds from 1973.
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 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.
“He's always in a good mood,” said exercise rider Willie Delgado, sitting beside assistant trainer Alan Sherman outside California Chrome's Stall 40 about three hours before post time.
Along with a tan suit, Delgado wore purple socks to match his purple and green California Chrome cap. He has been one of the horse's most steadfast companions over the last few weeks of cross-country flights and six-figure crowds. They're pals.
Delgado, who lived in Maryland until last fall, took the colt on a last jog around Pimlico at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. “All systems go,” he said, describing how California Chrome felt underneath him.”
Moments after the race, the exercise rider cradled his 6-year-old daughter, Savannah, as he murmured thanks for his time with the horse.
Nearby, Alan Sherman bellowed, “Yeahh!” and pumped his fist wildly as he looked for someone to hug. He has not only spent every day with the horse for weeks, he has watched California Chrome propel his father, Art, into the national spotlight after six decades of largely anonymous work around California tracks.
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 waited a lifetime to work on this grand a stage.
With a $10,000 investment, Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, bred the colt they're now calling “America's horse.” Coburn said the unnamed man who offered $6 million shook his hand on Friday and told him, “I respect what you did.”
Added Coburn: “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. … 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.”
Martin, whom Coburn described a deeply private person, wasn't on hand to celebrate the victory. But Coburn said he'd do everything possible to drag his partner to the next chapter in New York.
That would be the most difficult of them all — 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 ½ 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 think he has a big shot to win the Triple Crown,” said Sanchez, whose horse was considered one of the few talented enough to give California Chrome a scare.
Espinoza knows all too well how hard it is; War Emblem finished eighth in the Belmont 12 years ago.
“If it was easy, a lot of horses would have won the Triple Crown, you know?” he said. “It has to be a super horse to win that. … They lose so much energy. Hopefully California Chrome comes back good, and he is the one who hopefully can do it.”
Say this for now: California Chrome has yet to find the challenge he can't surmount.