But Moss said California Chrome displays a rare burst at the top of the stretch. “That Derby time looks like an aberration,” he said. “It's almost a situation where you go with your eyes and not the clock.”

Pimlico handicapper Gabby Gaudet sees California Chrome as a stronger favorite than Orb was last year and the clear class of a modestly talented field.

“He doesn't need a perfect trip to win,” she said. “Any other horse in the field is going to have to run the race of his life to beat him.”

Watching California Chrome hold his lead down the stretch at Churchill Downs, Gaudet got the feeling he had a few levels left in reserve. She perceives only one risk — that Espinoza might struggle to keep his horse from a chasing a fast early pace.

The talk all week at Pimlico has centered on the early speed in the Preakness. Many expect challengers such as Bayern, Pablo Del Monte and Social Inclusion to set an aggressive pace. California Chrome likes to run near the lead, so he could exhaust himself making his move too early, the thinking goes. On the other hand, he has won before in similar circumstances.

“The Preakness field is different to me because of the speed-laden horses that are in there,” Sherman said. “I've watched Bayern run at Santa Anita and he's got a lot of gas. I've seen there are a couple of new shooters in here. [Pablo Del Monte] has speed. Social Inclusion has speed. I'm just going off paper. But my horse, people don't realize, has got a little gas himself.”

In fact, he said, California Chrome loves a speedy target to shoot for.

Social Inclusion is the one horse analysts describe as more than a long shot to beat California Chrome. He's started only three times and was third at the April 5 Wood Memorial against the first elite field he'd faced. But his times from two victories in Florida reveal one of the few 3-year-olds with enough talent to beat a prime California Chrome. Owner Ron Sanchez doesn't sound like a long-shot dreamer when he weighs his colt's chances against the Derby champion.

“We have to make a huge effort to beat him,” Sanchez said. “But he's going to be forced to run a little bit harder early in the race than he ever has.”

It's the one showdown handicappers seem genuinely excited to see.

Moss envisions Social Inclusion breaking to the lead with little obstruction and setting the kind of blistering pace California Chrome has never confronted. The Derby champion would turn on his usual burst at the top of the stretch and the pair would duel to the end.

Would Social Inclusion hold up better than he did at the Wood? Would California Chrome be able to catch a truly gifted sprinter over 13/16 miles?

Such questions could make for great drama Saturday evening and reveal the depths of California Chrome's talent.

“It's potentially the greatest problem he's ever had to deal with,” Moss said. 




Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.