BALTIMORE — As soon as the gate opened, the 139th Preakness was a battle of tactics and wits as much as a test of raw speed. The field was loaded with potential front-runners, and the jockeys neither wanted to let a formidable rival steal away nor get involved in a suicidal early duel. “There were a lot of things going on,” said California Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza. “I got more tired mentally than physically.”
After the field had traveled a little more than an eighth of a mile and the race had taken a shape that almost nobody could have anticipated, Espinoza and his mount were sitting in a perfect place. They were positioned just behind and outside two hopeless long shots with clear sailing, ready to make their move when circumstances demanded. Part of this was Espinoza’s doing, but California Chrome is a consummate pro, able to use his high speed as his jockey commands.
Like a chess player who sets the stage for a victory with the first few moves of a game, Espinoza was in position to ward off the challenges that were to come, and California Chrome went on to score a 11 / 2 -length victory that was more impressive than his triumph in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. He had tired in the final furlong of the Derby, producing a slow final time, but his 1 minute 54.84 seconds for the Preakness distance of 13 / 16 miles was excellent. It adds to his credibility as he aims to win the Belmont Stakes and become the first winner of the Triple Crown since 1978.
The Preakness was so tactical because of the presence of speedsters such as Pablo Del Monte and Social Inclusion. Bettors made the latter colt the second choice in the wagering, and his owner, Ron Sanchez, had been telling the world that Social Inclusion would get the lead from all of his other fast rivals. Espinoza says he never has a fixed plan going into a race, but before this one he was mulling what he would do if Social Inclusion raced to a clear lead. But Sanchez’s declarations about going to the lead had evidently been a bluff. Jockey Luis Contreras took hold of the colt at the start, while Jeffrey Sanchez allowed Pablo Del Monte to use his natural speed and take the lead. Then, unexpectedly, long-shot filly Ria Antonia — who had never shown much quickness before — rushed up to engage in a duel.
Espinoza was delighted. California Chrome, he said, had “bounced out of [the gate] running,” and he settled behind the two leaders. The trio maintained their positions until midway on the backstretch, when Contreras launched his move, four-wide, with Social Inclusion. This may have been an ill-judged, premature move, but as Social Inclusion loomed outside California Chrome, he forced the hand of Espinoza, who couldn’t permit his main rival to get past him. Now he asked his mount to move in earnest. “We started earlier than I wanted to,” Espinoza said, “but the outside horse was pushing me.”
The two of them were eye-to-eye on the final turn — the duel most people had expected to see in the early stages of the race. California Chrome quickly seized command, though Social Inclusion would not be discredited by his eventual third-place finish. He came into the Preakness with insufficient preparation for a race of this magnitude, having raced only three times in a career that did not begin until Feb. 22. Sanchez had been so obsessed by the Triple Crown races that he wasn’t willing to give the colt the time and experience he needed at the top level of the sport.
California Chrome, by contrast, had raced 11 times before the Preakness. These races constituted a learning experience — he didn’t emerge as a potential star until his seventh start — and gave him a foundation of experience and fitness that have benefited him as a 3-year-old.
After repulsing the challenge of Social Inclusion, Espinoza quickly realized his work wasn’t done. He thought: “Here comes the other one!” The other one was Ride on Curlin, who had had an impossibly difficult trip in the Derby but had managed to rally from 19th place to finish seventh. At Pimlico the race was setting up better for him, and he was obviously a strong horse when he launched his four-wide rally turning into the stretch. Ride on Curlin was running away from the other eight horses in the field, and California Chrome was under pressure to keep him from getting dangerously close. “It was a challenge for him,” Espinoza said admiringly, but the colt has met every challenge he has faced as a 3-year-old. Now the biggest challenge of all is three weeks away.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.