Two down, one to go as California Chrome races to victory at Preakness Stake

With the frontstretch stands packed with race-day revelers jumping up and down, it was impossible for Art Sherman, the 5-foot-2 jockey-turned-trainer who knew California Chrome best, to make out how his chestnut colt was faring in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

So the 77-year-old Sherman gazed up at the oversized screen in the infield. What he saw was California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby winner and Saturday’s odds-on favorite, pulling away from a three-horse thicket as he rounded the final turn and thundering to a 11 / 2 -length victory to keep his Triple Crown bid alive.

With it, California Chrome became the 34th horse to win both the Derby and Preakness and collected $900,000 of the $1.5 million purse. Ride On Curlin finished second, followed by Social Inclusion, the lightly raced speedster deemed the biggest threat to the California-bred colt’s Triple Crown quest.

It was California Chrome’s sixth consecutive victory. And his brisk pace, posting a winning time of 1 minute 54.84 seconds, countered skeptics who had questioned his raw speed and humble pedigree.

California Chrome now has three weeks to regroup before the grueling Belmont Stakes — the third, final and longest leg of the Triple Crown, at 11 / 2 miles — where he’ll attempt to become the first horse to sweep the three classics since Affirmed in 1978.

Only 11 horses have claimed the Triple Crown in the sport’s history. And the vast majority of the record 123,469 who packed Pimlico on a glorious and crisp Saturday afternoon weren’t alive to see it.

The achievement of getting two-thirds of the way there by winning the Preakness reduced the colt’s working-class co-owner, Steve Coburn, 61, to tears. He and partner Perry Martin were derided as “dumb asses” for spending $8,000 on the mare that produced California Chrome. That’s why they named their fledging partnership “Dumb Ass Racing” and put a green donkey on the silks.

“He loves people; he loves what he does,” the burly Coburn said of his horse. “That’s why he’s America’s horse. In my opinion, this horse—what he’s doing for two guys who work their butts off every day just to put beans and bacon on the table — gives everybody else the incentive to say, ‘We can do it, too.’”

But California Chrome hasn’t found his way to victory alone. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard War Emblem in 2002, has ridden him to all six successive wins.

Asked to identify the main ingredient in the colt’s success, Espinoza said: “I think, the way I ride him!” And with a laugh, he quickly showered his horse with praise.

“Today, California Chrome — he proved that he can move,” said Espinoza, who did a masterful job getting his colt free of traffic and adjusting his strategy to counter the spirited challengers on either side.

“He has it,” he added, countering critics who scoffed at California Chrome’s relatively plodding Kentucky Derby winning time. “I don’t know how much he still has. But I make sure I get him to the wire first today.”

California Chrome broke from the third post in the 10-horse field, with Pablo Del Monte surging to the lead early. Espinoza swung his horse slightly to the outside and settled in third, which was precisely where he wanted to be entering the backstretch, hoping to delay his charge as long as possible.

Ria Antonia, the only filly in the field, also pushed the pace.

Entering the far turn, Espinoza felt he had no choice but to ask his horse for more. California Chrome responded, but neither Sherman nor Coburn could see. Both had TV cameras in their faces, and it was all Coburn could do to hang onto his beer with his left hand and pump his fist with his right.

Ria Antonia, ridden by 2009 Preakness winner Calvin Borel, was spent three-quarters of the way through and finished last. Pablo Del Monte came home sixth.

Just three of the Kentucky Derby’s 19 entrants raced in the Preakness: In addition to California Chrome, second-place Ride On Curlin and General A Rod (fourth). Moreover, it was the third consecutive year that the Preakness attracted fewer than the maximum 14 entrants. (Ten horses bolted from the starting gate Saturday. Only nine raced in 2013; 11, in 2012)

That prompted Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, to reiterate his call for a change in the Triple Crown calendar to give horses more time to recover between the three classics, which are packed into a five-week span.

Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer, has said he wouldn’t have entered his colt in the Preakness if he hadn’t won the Derby, setting in motion a potential Triple Crown. Trainer Todd Pletcher voiced similar reservations, and several other stables stayed away, as well, despite 50 percent increase in the purse.

Chuckas has proposed stretching the classics over two months, with the Kentucky Derby keeping its traditional, first-Saturday in May date, the Preakness shifting to the first Saturday in June, and the Belmont moving to the first Saturday in July.

“It’s not all about the Triple Crown; it’s about getting the best product before the racing fans,” Chuckas said a few hours before post-time. “I don’t want to go the way of the dinosaur and become extinct.”

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