Updated on 05/20/2014 7:49AM

California Chrome prevails in Preakness

Barbara D. Livingston
Victor Espinoza celebrates as California Chrome becomes the 13th horse since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

BALTIMORE – Back when he was a mere stable hand connected to Swaps, young Art Sherman went to the Kentucky Derby, then went right back to California with Swaps, the Derby winner, in tow. The Triple Crown wasn’t even considered by Swaps’s owner and breeder, Rex Ellsworth, or trainer, Mesh Tenney.

Some 59 years later, Sherman finally returned to the Derby, this time as the trainer of California Chrome. He won it. But the Triple Crown trail didn’t end there this year. It continued Saturday at Pimlico, where California Chrome won the Preakness, and now it will continue at Belmont Park, where California Chrome will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Before a record Preakness crowd of 123,469, California Chrome ($3), the favorite, scored a 1 1/2-length victory in the Preakness, which marked his sixth straight win and gave him a chance to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner. In the years since Affirmed won it, 12 horses prior to California Chrome had won the Derby and Preakness. Eleven of them failed to win the Belmont, and the most recent, I’ll Have Another, failed to even make the race.

It is a demanding challenge. The 1 3/16-mile Preakness comes two weeks after the 1 1/4-mile Derby, and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 7 follows three weeks after the Preakness. That’s three races in five weeks at three different tracks in three different states.

“I’m never crazy about running back in two weeks,” Sherman said, referring to the Preakness. “Now there’s three weeks. It’ll be quite a challenge. You’ve got to have a very good horse. I’m hoping I have one.”

Sherman has been honest in his assessment of California Chrome all along. He defers when asked to compare him with Swaps, noting that Swaps at one time held six world records. His truthfulness was on display in another manner this week, when he and his son and assistant, Alan, revealed that California Chrome had a scratchy throat and said it was nothing to worry about, which proved correct. That Art Sherman is starting to warm up to potential success in the Triple Crown is not the idle rambling of a neophyte.

“We’re running on a high right now, but when we get to Belmont, I think he’ll run big ─ I really do,” Sherman said.

The Preakness required far more effort from both California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza than did the Derby. Espinoza had to ride California Chrome away from the gate to get off the inside and secure a good position, then Espinoza was forced to move with a half-mile to go when Social Inclusion launched his bid.

California Chrome turned back Social Inclusion, then had to stave off a fresh challenge from Ride On Curlin. He handled it all, covering 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.84.

Social Inclusion finished another 6 1/2 lengths behind Ride On Curlin in third, eight lengths behind California Chrome. General a Rod was fourth and was followed by Ring Weekend, Pablo Del Monte, Dynamic Impact, Kid Cruz, Bayern, and the filly Ria Antonia.

General a Rod was a tough-luck fourth. He was caught behind Ria Antonia when she stopped entering the far turn, was shuffled back, then re-rallied. The performances of California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, and General a Rod – the only three horses in this 10-horse field who exited the Derby – certainly underscored the quality of the Derby.

California Chrome started from post 3. Although he was rocking in the gate, as is his habit, he broke sharply, with only Pablo Del Monte quicker. Espinoza got him outside of Pablo Del Monte in the first furlong, then settled into third when Ria Antonia moved early to go with Pablo Del Monte through fractions of 23.56 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.85 for a half-mile.

California Chrome was in a perfect striking position the entire way down the backstretch. But nearing the far turn, jockey Luis Contreras sent Social Inclusion after the leaders.

“They attacked too soon. I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ ” said Espinoza, who said he got “more tired mentally than physically” riding this race because of all the tactical decisions required.

California Chrome left Social Inclusion at the top of the stretch and – as he did in the Derby – quickly opened a daylight lead on his rivals in upper stretch. Ride On Curlin, ninth for the first half-mile, made a bold run, but California Chrome always held him safe and never let him get by on the gallop-out.

“I knew he’d have to run harder in this race,” Sherman said. “Coming back in two weeks was a little bit of a concern. He’s a real racehorse. I’m hoping the mile and a half is up his alley. After watching him today, I think he can go the mile and a half. He can rate, and a speed horse who can rate is always dangerous.”

California Chrome, bred and owned by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, has won eight times in 12 starts. In the Preakness, he earned $900,000 from a total purse of $1.5 million, bringing his career earnings to more than $3.4 million.

“I don’t mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant, but when this horse was a day old, I knew he’d do something big,” Coburn said.

Sherman has been on the racetrack all his adult life. After working for Tenney and Ellsworth, he was a jockey for 23 years and then turned to training. When the Triple Crown quest was mentioned Saturday, he grew wistful.

“For my career, been in the game 60 years, a Triple Crown winner? Wow,” Sherman said. “If you’d have said that at the beginning of the year, I’d have said you were crazy. It’s a dream for any trainer to do this, believe me.”