As "Bronco" Billy Gowan made his way back to the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday night, the Louisiana-born, Kentucky-based trainer looked and acted as if his horse, Ride On Curlin, had just won the 139th Preakness.
"I'm happy. He never quit. My horse run as hard as he could, but old [California] Chrome kept running, too," Gowan said after Ride On Curlin followed up a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby with runner-up honors in Baltimore.
Given the way Ride On Curlin flew down the backstretch and passed eventual third-place finisher Social Inclusion by a head, Gowan said "you definitely have to consider the Belmont" Stakes on June 7.
Gowan was not alone in considering whether to take another shot at stopping California Chrome's run at the first Triple Crown in 36 years.
Even Linda Rice, whose bid to become the first female trainer to win a classic race ended early when 20-1 shot Kid Cruz got out of the starting gate poorly and ran dead last before finishing eighth in the 10-horse field, is thinking about it.
"He was a little further back than I hoped, but they were going fast and he was chasing much faster horses today than he has been previously," Rice said of Kid Cruz, who came from behind in his two victories. "But he was running on the end of it."
That Kid Cruz made up some ground at the end led Rice to believe the "Belmont's definitely a possibility, because the mile and a half, I think, will suit him very well."
Not that Rice and Kid Cruz's co-owner, Frederick native and University of Maryland graduate Steve Brandt, are unrealistic about what it might take to beat California Chrome, now unbeaten in his first six races.
"California Chrome looks unbeatable now. … That's how it looks today, but you never know when they're going to stub their toe," Rice said. "Now he looks like he's the best of the 3-year-old group, but we'll see how things move on from here."
Said Brandt: "I have to wait to see how [Kid Cruz] comes out of the race, but I know a couple of horses skipped this race to run in the Belmont. Linda has said it a million times: She doesn't want to run unless she thinks we have a legitimate chance."
Hearing an analogy about how golfers often said they were playing for second place during Tiger Woods' prime, Brandt smiled. He joked: "I wouldn't mind being second or third. I can chase Tiger down the back nine; I can do that."
"I figured [California Chrome] was going to win this race, but just the way he does it, he handles these horses so easily," Baffert said. "He's just a remarkable athlete. He's just a freaky kind of horse. It was pretty impressive. What he did today, he had a lot left. He's doing it with ease. None of his races have taxed him."
Baffert has been in the same position as Art Sherman, California Chrome's trainer, heading to Belmont Park. Silver Charm won the first two legs in 1997, Real Quiet did the same in 1998, and War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2002.
"With Silver Charm and Real Quiet, they were really taxing races," Baffert said. "They were tough deals. Silver Charm ran against [Belmont Stakes winner] Touch Gold; he had run the whole way around there. But this horse, with this group, he rebreaks on them and just takes off again. I'm done chasing him."
Ron Sanchez is not sure whether Social Inclusion, who came into Saturday's race as the second-biggest favorite at 5-1, is done after the second leg.
After a slow start that saw Social Inclusion go from eighth to second between the three-quarter pole and the backstretch, only to fade a little at the end, the Venezuelan owner knows what he will be up against should he choose to enter his horse in the Belmont Stakes.
"California Chrome's a freak like everybody says. He's the real deal," Sanchez said. "At the last stage, everybody is always coming through, but we never catch him. We never catch him. My horse came to challenge him, but he found another engine. He was gone. You can't say it didn't happen. It happened."