Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

California Chrome's biggest test is yet to come

There is a lot we now know about California Chrome, first and foremost that he will have his day in the New York spotlight and keep the horse racing world in high clover for another three weeks.

We also know that the blue-collar chestnut colt has a story for the ages, a seemingly unbreakable competitive spirit and enough karma and charisma to make anything seem possible after he fended off a challenge from Ride on Curlin to win the 139th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course late Saturday afternoon.

This is what the racing public has been waiting for — another chance to celebrate the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 — but it's fair to point out that there's a lot we really don't know about California Chrome yet.

And we're not alone.

Even jockey Victor Espinoza and Chrome's connections fielded every Triple Crown question after the race with something other than a bold proclamation that their horse is an unstoppable force that is going to tear up the track at Belmont Park on June 7.

"It has to be a super horse to do that," said Espinoza, who came up short in the same situation with War Emblem in 2002. "Hopefully, California Chrome will come back good and he'll be the one to do it."

Co-owner Steve Coburn came the closest, continuing to express great confidence that this special horse is going to keep doing special things, but basing that feeling more on Chrome's intangible qualities than on anything that can be measured with a stopwatch or a past performance sheet.

"I don't mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant because I've said this," Coburn said. "I've said it a hundred times if I said it once. When I saw this colt … when I saw this baby when he was a day old, I toldmy 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 gameto 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."

Of course, there are all sorts of good reasons to be skeptical, most of them the same ones that have been driving the Chrome-can't-do-it conversation during the two weeks of run-up to the Preakness. He got a seemingly perfect ride at Churchill Downs, but didn't set any speed records, running the mile and a quarter in a time (2:03.66) that was the slowest on a fast track at the Derby since 1974.

Many of the experts predicted that Chrome would win the Preakness in similar fashion, then go the way of every other horse that has come this far in the last 36 years. He would be undone by the tight racing schedule that now appears to be under review by the Maryland Jockey Club or the grueling 1 ½- mile distance or one of the fresh horses who will show up in Elmont, N.Y., hoping to crash the party and cash in on the $1.5 million purse.

Chrome may have quieted some of the speed questions by running the 1 3/16-mile course in a respectable 1:54.84, which may have been nearly two seconds off Secretariat's Preakness record but was the fastest time since Curlin ran 1:53.46 in 2007. It just added to the storyline that it was the son of Curlin pushing him at the finish line.

The fact that his top challengers in the Derby chose to bypass Baltimore also will give fodder to those who want to discount Chrome's victory in the second jewel because it did not come against a terrific field, but Coburn took on all late-comers when someone asked him how much horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner.

"In my opinion, there are a lot of trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart," he said."I honestly believe that there are a lot of good horses running out there, and 19 of them started the Kentucky Derby. I honestly believe that they need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that start in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races. If you bow out of the Preakness, you don't come back to the Belmont."

Coburn went on to say that if Chrome doesn't win the Belmont, he probably will not see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime, but it's possible that a loss in three weeks actually might be the catalyst for some significant changes in the Triple Crown format.

There has been discussion over the past week about the possibility adding more time between the three races to soften the grueling schedule that discourages some trainers from running their Derby horses on two weeks rest. Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas supports the idea and it likely will be a hot topic in New York leading up to the Belmont.

Recent history confirms that the current environment makes it nearly impossible for anything but a "super horse" to win three major stakes races in five weeks.

Maybe California Chrome is that horse, but even with two of the three races in the bank, the odds are stacked heavily against him.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad