California Chrome did what he was supposed to do at the Kentucky Derby, running the exact race his trainer and jockey envisioned as other contenders found trouble around him.
As a result, the only horse with a flawless resume entering the first leg of the Triple Crown also emerged the comfortable winner.
The chestnut colt's victory paid off a delightful underdog narrative. His owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, were relative racing novices who spent a modest $10,000 to breed their champion from humble parents. His trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, had never guided a horse to American racing's biggest stage. The closest Sherman had come was as a stable hand for the great Swaps at the 1955 Kentucky Derby.
Fellow trainers harbored doubts about California Chrome despite his undefeated run through the Derby prep season. Was his pedigree fine enough? Could he run well outside California?
As soon as he bested a 19-horse field at Churchill Downs, however, talk turned to California Chrome as a possible Triple Crown winner. Coburn, the brash co-owner, even predicted his colt would go on to take the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
If California Chrome pulls it off, he'd become the first since Affirmed in 1978 and bring to an end one of the great guessing games in American sports.
First things first. Chrome will arrive in Baltimore this week trying to become the 13th horse since 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Here are five storylines to watch as he continues his Triple Crown quest:
Was California Chrome's victory at Churchill Downs as impressive as it first appeared?
The 5-2 favorite started clean, ran just off the lead, then pulled away easily as he reached the top of the stretch. Second-place finisher Commanding Curve made a late charge but never truly threatened California Chrome.
This seemingly perfect trip had opposing trainers raving. "He looked like a winner every step of the race," said Steve Asmussen, who saddled Tapiture in the Derby. "You watch the replay and everybody had trouble but him."
Yet, in the week since, analysts have nitpicked California Chrome's win, especially his 2:03.66 time, the slowest winning mark on a Derby track labeled "fast" since 1974.
Longtime racing writer Andrew Beyer, whose speed figures are popular measures of performance adjusted for track conditions, said California Chrome's mark was the least impressive he's ever calculated for a Derby winner.
The figure led Beyer to question the quality of the field and the champion's pedigree to run longer distances.
Of course, even if Beyer and other skeptics are correct, their doubts might not come into play at Pimlico Race Course. At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is shorter than the Derby. And the field will be less accomplished than the one California Chrome beat at Churchill Downs. He might not need to be historically fast to add another leg of the Triple Crown to his resume.
How will California Chrome deal with the two-week turnaround from Derby to Preakness?
The Triple Crown is such a difficult quest in part because the Derby winner invariably faces a wave of fresh new rivals at the Preakness.
That will certainly be the case this year, with contenders Social Inclusion, Bayern and Dynamic Impact all coming in more rested than California Chrome. For all the brilliance of his spring winning streak, California Chrome hasn't run on anything less than four weeks' rest in 2014.
The day after the Derby, Sherman acknowledged that he wasn't sure how California Chrome would react. The veteran trainer said he prefers to hold his horses as long as seven weeks between races. His champion has also never been away from California nearly this long.
Sherman said California Chrome adjusts well to new challenges, given his relaxed demeanor.
But there's little way to know how he'll handle these circumstances, even though his record is far superior to those of his competitors.
Which new entries pose the biggest threats?
California Chrome will face a field very different from the one he beat in Kentucky. Commanding Curve won't be in Baltimore, nor will Wicked Strong, who went off as the second choice and finished fourth.
The new challengers didn't qualify for the Derby, meaning they carry thinner resumes, by and large, than the horses California Chrome already beat. That said, there are a few intriguing possibilities.
Social Inclusion didn't race as a 2-year-old, but he had handicappers buzzing with his workout times and easy victories in his first two races. His Derby candidacy hinged entirely on his performance in the Wood Memorial, where he finished third. But he's still regarded as one of the bigger talents in this 3-year-old class.
Bayern was another touted Derby contender before he finished a disappointing third at the Arkansas Derby. He seemed to win the April 26 Derby Trial, only to be disqualified for drifting into another horse. Regardless of his mixed results, Bayern will garner support because he's trained by Bob Baffert, who has won five the Preakness five times, and ridden by leading female jockey Rosie Napravnik.
Dynamic Impact faced a new level of competition at the April 19 Illinois Derby and won, so he's another possibility for those seeking a late-blooming 3-year-old. Kid Cruz, the only contender with a stakes win on the track at Pimlico, could make an appealing long shot.
Can any also-ran from the Derby field do better this time around?
The line of repeat challengers to California Chrome is short, with many trainers planning to hold their contenders until the June 7 Belmont.
Seventh-place finisher Ride on Curlin will give it another go. He endured a strange race at Churchill Downs, with jockey Calvin Borel aggressively pushing him from an outside post position all the way to the rail. After that lateral move, Ride on Curlin simply couldn't maneuver through the great pack of horses ahead of him.
Trainer Billy Gowan signaled his displeasure with the ride, announcing that he'd replace Borel with Joel Rosario, who won the Kentucky Derby aboard Orb last year. Gowan said his horse came out of the Derby fresh and suggested he might do better at Pimlico, starting from a less punitive post position.
"He's one tough horse," Gowan said.
Are we missing out on the duels that could establish California Chrome as a superhorse?
Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had each other. Affirmed had Alydar. Even a horse as dominant as Secretariat had Sham.
Is there any rival capable of pushing California Chrome to a historically memorable race?
The depressing fact for racing fans is that California Chrome might never face the horses equipped to give him the best run at Pimlico. There would be far more excitement, for example, if Asmussen planned to run his talented filly, Untapable. She was perhaps more impressive in the Kentucky Oaks than California Chrome was in the Derby. And there were those who hoped she might follow the same path as 2009 Oaks and Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra. Alas, Asmussen will keep her running against other fillies for now.
Hoppertunity at least remained close to California Chrome at the Santa Anita Derby. He was the 6-1 second choice in Kentucky before Baffert scratched him because of a foot bruise. He originally seemed targeted for the Preakness, but health concerns will keep him out of the entire Triple Crown.
Constitution seemed another possible rival after winning the Florida Derby, but a fractured shin ended his Triple Crown hopes.
Injuries and scratches are facts of life in the fickle world of thoroughbred racing, but with so many talented peers out of the running, we might not find out how good California Chrome really is.
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