California Chrome has a bit of Hollywood in him.
Just a few steps into his first afternoon at Pimlico Race Course on Monday, the Kentucky Derby champion stopped and posed regally before a pack of photographers click, click, clicking. The handsome chestnut seemed to relish his turn as the Brad Pitt of Preakness week.
“I think he loves it,” said assistant trainer Alan Sherman. “He’ll sit out there and pose all day. He loves the cameras and the attention.”
California Chrome is certainly used to the glare after winning the Kentucky Derby as a heavy favorite and horse of the people. He’ll try to win the second leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday in the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes.
He arrived in Maryland just before 2 p.m. on a charter flight from Kentucky, the second airplane trip of his 3-year-old life. Once his trailer reached Pimlico behind a Baltimore City Police escort, he backed down the ramp (getting on and off vehicles is one of few experiences that discomfort him) and embraced his public.
“It doesn’t bother him at all,” exercise rider Willie Delgado said of the welcoming scene. “He knows what he’s here for.”
Delgado rode on the charter flight with the colt and rubbed his head rhythmically once California Chrome entered Stall 40, the space at Pimlico’s Preakness Stakes Barn traditionally reserved for Derby champions.
California Chrome arrived with a Triple Crown destiny locked in his team’s sights. One of his co-owners, Steve Coburn, has already predicted the chestnut colt will become the first thoroughbred in 36 years to pull it off.
It’s perhaps the only way California Chrome’s story could become more captivating. By now, sports fans know the story of his rise from humble origins. Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, are self-described working men who met when they bought a Maryland-bred mare named Love the Chase for a modest $8,000.
They spent another $2,000 to pair her with an unremarkable stud, Lucky Pulpit, in one of the thousands of anonymous breeding transactions that occur every year. Coburn swears he dreamed of a chestnut colt with a special future just a few weeks before California Chrome was born Feb. 18, 2011.
Regardless of such mystical underpinnings, the colt proved precocious when Martin and Coburn handed him over to Art Sherman.
The veteran trainer, scheduled to arrive in Baltimore on Tuesday, also carried a modest back story. He’d been a jockey for 23 years and had gone on to build a small barn that produced plenty of good horses on the California circuit. But he hadn’t sniffed the Triple Crown since serving as a stable hand for the great California horse Swaps in 1955.
So here you had a horse of unimpressive pedigree with inexperienced owners and a largely unknown trainer.
Yet California Chrome swept through the spring prep season and arrived in Kentucky as the clear Derby favorite. Rival trainers remained skeptical until the moment the gates opened, but he made them believers, winning almost casually as other contenders found trouble around him.
The victory brought his career earnings to $2.55 million, not a bad payoff for a $10,000 investment, though Coburn and Martin have adamantly refused purchase offers of as much as $6 million for their champion.
“It's an awesome feeling having a horse of this caliber,” Alan Sherman said Monday. “It's the first time we've had a horse this good, so we're enjoying the ride.”
California Chrome will likely be a massive favorite Saturday. None of the horses who came closest to him in Kentucky are expected to run in the Preakness. And among the wave of fresh challengers, few have run fast enough to indicate they’re major threats to such an accomplished horse.
Social Inclusion, who arrived at Pimlico last week, is perhaps the most significant exception. His times from two winter victories in Florida suggest he’s one of the few 3-year-olds in America speedy enough to hold off California Chrome.
With so many Derby contenders skipping Baltimore and waiting for the June 7 Belmont Stakes, NBC analyst Randy Moss said, “The Preakness is significantly easier to win than it ever has been in history.”
Which is not to say any horse, even one as impressive as California Chrome, is immune to bad luck. Analysts were similarly high on Derby champion Orb going into last year’s Preakness. But he became ensnared in early traffic and could never make his customary charge as less-touted Oxbow held the lead.
California Chrome has struggled breaking from the gate at times and has shown discomfort when stuck behind competitors kicking dirt in his face. So he’s hardly invulnerable.
California Chrome spent last week at Churchill Downs under Alan Sherman’s supervision. (Art Sherman, Alan’s father, returned to California to work with his other horses). The Derby champion took three days off after his career-defining victory, then resumed his regular early-morning gallops.
Alan Sherman and Delgado described the colt’s temperament as excellent throughout the week. He lost 30 pounds after running the Derby, about normal for him, but he has gained back 42. To their eyes, he has looked none the worse for wear.
The two-week break between Derby and Preakness is easily the shortest California Chrome has faced in his undefeated 3-year-old season. He has run on at least four weeks’ rest in each of his five consecutive victories.
And yet, there’s a sense he has plenty of energy in reserve. Without any true threats coming from the late chargers, jockey Victor Espinoza seemed to ease up on his colt near the finish line in Kentucky. In fact, California Chrome’s winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest on a Derby track in “fast” condition since 1974.
A skeptic could look at the time and say California Chrome was a less-than-spectacular horse beating a mediocre field. On the other hand, the colt’s times from earlier in the year suggest he’s capable of going faster, and competing trainers felt he ran beautifully.
As a general rule, Kentucky Derby winners run well at the Preakness, a slightly shorter race at 1 3/16 miles. Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, a dozen horses have won the Derby and Preakness, only to falter at the Belmont Stakes. Since 1997, eight of the 17 Derby winners have gone on to victory at Pimlico. California Chrome’s jockey, Espinoza, rode one of them — War Emblem in 2002.
Alan Sherman said he expects his horse to confront a good bit of early speed in the Preakness, a prospect he sounded comfortable with. “He’ll do whatever Victor asks him to do,” the assistant trainer said. “He’s pretty good that way.”
California Chrome will take his first spin around the track at Pimlico on Tuesday at his customary 6:45 a.m. jog time.
The cameras will be on him and if the past is any evidence, he’ll take a few moments to stand and drink in his surroundings — a star born to his stage.