The ease by which California Chrome dusted his rivals in the Kentucky Derby set up the likelihood of a win in the 139th Preakness Stakes (May 17) that would lead to a shot at horse racing’s crown jewels, something no horse has claimed since Affirmed in 1978.
Although the Preakness is hardly a breather, it’s one sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby. No one is questioning now if the mid-sized chestnut glider with his middle class owners and middle class breeding can carry his speed to classic distance.
Still, it will be a differently styled race from the Derby, with a much hotter pace – thanks to the inclusion of Social Inclusion, Bayern and Pablo del Norte, fast colts who are committed to running on the front end.
Social Inclusion is a late-blooming 3-year-old, trained by 85-year-old Manny Azpurua, who set a track record at Gulfstream for 1 1/16 miles. He qualified for the Derby by finishing third in the Wood Memorial Grade 1 prep. But he bypassed Louisville to be fresh for the Preakness, whose shorter stretch favors him. He may have a shot at upsetting California Chrome, but he must survive a pace that will be more torrid than the one that wore him down in the Wood.
In the Derby, California Chrome’s winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest on a fast-rated track since 1974. That fact has been used to suggest Chrome is not what he’s cracked up to be. It’s more likely the subpar time was due to an absence of horses trying to lead.
Regardless of the pace scenario for the Preakness, jockey Victor Espinoza will have the favorite in a comfortable position to take over the race when the speed dies out. It’s difficult to see anyone catching him late, with stretch-runners Commanding Curve (second in the Derby) and Wicked Strong skipping this one.
An intriguing longshot is Ride On Curlin, whose odds-defying run of bad luck continued in the Kentucky Derby. After troubled trips – but in-the-money finishes – in three consecutive graded stakes, trainer Bill Gowan thought he found the jockey to provide a steady ride: three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel. Alas, Borel, after skillfully sliding his horse from the 18th post to the rail, failed to push him to the front.
“He was bottled up,” the jockey said when asked why he wasn’t more aggressive.
Ride on Curlin finished seventh, and Gowan said, “He was not tired at all after the Derby.”
Borel will be replaced in the Preakness by Joel Rosario, winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby.
One colt who ran well at Gulfstream (second in the Fountain of Youth, third in the Florida Derby) but didn’t respond to Churchill was General a Rod. His close-to-the-pace style could serve him well at Pimlico, as should a switch to the country’s top jock, Javier Castellano, winning 28 percent of his races.
Look for California Chrome to overtake Social Inclusion and lead into the stretch, with Ride on Curlin and General a Rod making charges that fall short. That would make California Chrome the 13th horse in 36 years to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and set up a meaningful Belmont Stakes on June 7.