BALTIMORE — Middle children will tell you, they're the ones who always get ignored. That's not saying the Preakness Stakes is being ignored, but if the Kentucky Derby represents the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the nation on the first Saturday in May, the third Saturday has become a day off for most of that group.
A field of 12 is entered for Saturday's Preakness, the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, but only three of those starters went to post in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.
Part of that is out of respect for California Chrome, a 3-5 morning-line favorite who has won five straight races, all impressively, all of them stakes races and three of them graded stakes. Only one other Derby starter tested Big Brown in the 2008 Preakness and only two others wanted another run at Barbaro in 2006.
Mainly, horses don't run as often as they once did. Trainers like four to five weeks between starts, which means that more and more trainers bypass the Preakness altogether to load up for a run in the Belmont Stakes, three weeks away.
"People are bailing out of the Preakness, I've been saying that for a while," said trainer Bob Baffert, a five-time Preakness winner whose Derby horse Hopportunity is not in Baltimore. Instead, he will send out Bayern, second in the Derby Trial three weeks ago, after being disqualified from first. "The Derby is a tough race, and especially if there's a big favorite in the Preakness, people don't want the expense of going to Baltimore to turn right back around and run."
Nobody saddles more Derby starters than Todd Pletcher, who led the nation in trainer earnings last year. Pletcher is absent from the Preakness for a third straight year. He’s not the only one. In the past 10 runnings, 196 horses have started the Kentucky Derby. If the three scheduled to go to post in Saturday's Preakness make it to the gate, only 48 of those, less than one-quarter, went on to the Preakness Stakes.
It's a problem, according to Steve Coburn, part owner of California Chrome, who holds out his colt as perhaps the last chance for the sport to see another Triple Crown in its present format. Affirmed was the last to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1978, and in recent years there have been persistent calls to alter the format of the three races to attract better horses, and perhaps to make the races more manageable for the current generation of thoroughbreds.
"I honestly believe they need to change the format," Coburn said. "If your horse runs in the Kentucky Derby, then those are the only ones who should be eligible to run in the Preakness or Belmont. And if your horse runs in the Preakness, those are the only ones allowed in the Belmont. If you can't race in one, you shouldn't be allowed to race in the others. We're here for the long haul. And these other guys will drop a horse out and save him for the Belmont. You've got a horse that doesn't run well in the Kentucky Derby, you hold him out and he's a fresh horse for the Belmont, then the horse that won the Derby is kind of a tired horse. If they don't change this format, if California Chrome does not win the Triple Crown — and I really believe he will, I feel it in my heart — if they don't change the situation, then we will never see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime."
While California Chrome's new competitors today might be fresher, they are nowhere near as accomplished. In fact, for a stakes race of this magnitude, you could say they're downright mediocre. Only two of California Chrome's nine Preakness challengers have won a stakes race at all.
"There's no bona fide stake horses in there," California Chrome trainer Art Sherman said last week, and he meant no disrespect. He was simply stating reality.
In fact, the ten colts entered against California Chrome in the Preakness have a combined 22 starts in stakes races (and only 16 in the more prestigious graded stakes). The lone filly, Ria Atonia, has five graded stakes starts and seven stakes starts overall, but never has won one.
If there's a threat to California Chrome in this race, it's tactical. The Kentucky Derby was one of the slowest in recent decades. In fact, about the only knocks on California Chrome are his slow speed figure from the Derby (97) and a cough that has been much-discussed this week on the Pimilico backside.
"One day you have a 107 Beyer [speed figure] and the next day it's 97, how do you figure that?" Sherman said. "All I can tell you is between me and [jockey] Victor Espinoza, he says he's never been to the bottom of this horse. He's never gotten after him with the whip. He's shown it to him a couple of times, but he'll tell you there's more. ... I think we're going to do really well."
Certainly, California Chrome figures to have to deal with more early speed from Social Inclusion — making just his fourth career start after finishing third in the Wood Memorial — and Bayern, who is making just his fifth career start. Social Inclusion will go straight to the lead and try to stay there, according to his trainer, 85-year-old Manuel Azpurua. He tired after taking the early lead in the Wood Memorial over 1 1/8 miles. Before that, Social Inclusion posted the best speed figure of any horse in this Preakness, 110, in winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park.
General a Rod, who finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby, is back for another try, as is Ride On Curlin, who finished seventh in the Derby. Ride On Curlin's trainer, Billy Gowan, fired jockey Calvin Borel and will hope Joel Rosario can get him a better trip. When asked if he could beat California Chrome, Gowan said, "If I didn't think I could, I wouldn't be here."
California Chrome, if he gets a clean start and a manageable trip, is the horse to beat. Even concerns about him running the slowest Derby in recent memory are tempered by his having run the second-fastest Santa Anita Derby ever.
"It's his race to win or lose," said Mike Maker, trainer of General a Rod.
"He will have to be off his game to lose," said Graham Motion, trainer of Ring Weekend.
If he does lose, horse racing may go back to the drawing board where its Triple Crown format is concerned. And if California Chrome wins?
"It'll be a great day for us and for horse racing," Coburn said. "We got home from the Kentucky Derby and had all this mail that people had sent us from all over the country and all over the world. He's the people's horse."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, WDRB-TV, Louisville. Eric Crawford is a columnist for WDRB.com. Twitter @ericcrawford.