After being voted the champion of his generation and being syndicated for $20 million, Chief's Crown finally has to stop resting on his laurels.
He will face his first significant test as a 3-year-old when he takes on Proud Truth and Stephan's Odyssey in the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah today.
He hardly could have found a softer spot. Of the eight horses in the field, Chief's Crown is the only one with early speed. His jockey, Don MacBeth, will be able to control the race. He probably can open a three- or four-length lead any time he wants -- an advantage that would make even an inferior horse hard to beat.
Yet despite all the handicapping logic on his side, a widespread suspicion persists that Chief's Crown will bomb out today -- that he will not only lose but will lose badly enough to destroy his credibility as a Kentucky Derby contender.
For months, racetrack insiders have questioned the soundness and the fitness of the Eclipse Award winner. The colt caught a virus shortly after he came to Florida this winter, and when he started training he impressed nobody who saw him. He did win his only start of the winter, the seven-furlong Swale Stakes, but the performance was hardly dazzling.
After that tuneup, the colt's training should have accelerated to prepare him for the 1 1/8 miles of the Flamingo. Instead, Roger Laurin gave him a pair of six-furlong workouts, and it is questionable whether this is enough to get him fit for today's distance. Is Laurin babying the colt because he has physical problems and he can't withstand too much training?
People who watched those last two workouts tend to doubt Laurin's repeated assurances that everything is fine with Chief's Crown. When the colt went six furlongs in 1:11 3/5, clockers said he was drifting wide and that he pulled himself up abruptly after the finish line, signs that he was very fatigued, or hurting, or both.
John Veitch, Proud Truth's trainer, saw that workout, too, and it prompted him to make the kind of declaration Friday that is extraordinarily rare in his profession: "I'm not particularly concerned with Chief's Crown. After that work the other day, I don't think he's fit enough to go 1 1/8 miles against seasoned horses like these. When he finished the work and got under the wire, he didn't gallop out more than a few yards. Usually, that shows a horse is pretty much all out."
If there were one good speed horse in the Flamingo, Chief's Crown wouldn't have a prayer. But neither Proud Truth nor Stephan's Odyssey is going to be able to apply any early pressure. Proud Truth is a confirmed stretch-runner; he has won five of his six career starts coming from far behind, and has established himself as the future-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby with that style. He's not about to change. Stephan's Odyssey has a little more speed, but trainer Woody Stephens is convinced the colt wants to run from far off the pace.
Chief's Crown will be alone in the lead with no pressure -- and no excuses. After months of gossip and speculation, the racing world should finally be able to learn what kind of a horse he is.