BALTIMORE — California Chrome is still shining. And on Saturday, after turning away speed challenges early and late, the colt of humble origins won the Preakness Stakes to place himself in position to become racing royalty.
The second jewel of the Triple Crown was the sixth straight win for California Chrome, and he did it with minimum drama but maximum effort.
He broke well, angled out a bit when Pablo Del Monte sprinted to the front, but straightened himself into position to stalk the leaders going into the first turn. At that point, trainer Art Sherman said, "I felt we were in the driver's seat."
Then Social Inclusion made a big move as the horses entered the final turn, and jockey Victor Espinoza had California Chrome move with him.
It was a bit earlier than he wanted to move the colt, but it didn't matter. Espinoza drew away from the field by five lengths, then held off Kentucky Derby foe Ride On Curlin at the wire to win by 1 1/2 lengths before a Preakness record crowd of 123,469 at Pimlico Race Course.
Now, he heads to New York to vie for horse racing's Triple Crown when he runs in the Belmont Stakes on June 7. No horse has won the Triple Crown in 36 years since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
"I don't mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant, because I've said this," California Chrome's owner Steve Coburn said. "I've said it a hundred times if I've said it once. When I saw this colt, when I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, Carolyn, this horse is going to do something big."
California Chrome went off as a 2-5 favorite, and finished the race in 1:35.65.
The rest of the field had two graded stakes victories between them, while Chrome was running for his sixth straight win. Social Inclusion, who moved to challenge California Chrome heading into the stretch, finished third, followed by General a Rod, putting the three Kentucky Derby finishers who tried the Preakness into the top four spots.
But it was the winner's versatility that impressed opposing trainers on Saturday.
He has won in a variety of ways, stalking the leaders, even on the lead when called upon.
His ability to dig deep when asked to move earlier than usual before the stretch set him apart on Saturday.
"California Chrome is something," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's a cool customer. He does everything right. He's fast enough to stay out of trouble. Victor rides him with so much confidence. He knows when he has to move into a spot. He has so much acceleration."
As they watched the race, Sherman and Coburn said they had so many cameras in their faces that they couldn't see the race. And the media glare is only beginning, as the sport welcomes its first shot at a Triple Crown since 2012, when I'll Have Another scratched the day of the Belmont.
The last horse to start the Belmont with a chance at a Triple Crown was Big Brown in 2008.
There have been 12 colts since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. California Chrome's connections hope No. 13 is lucky.
Sherman was asked, point blank: Is his colt good enough to win a Triple Crown?
"I wouldn't want to be in anybody else's shoes right now," Sherman said. "I think the horse is a phenomenal horse. I know right now we're running on a high. But I think when we get to Belmont this horse is going to run big. I really do."
Sherman, who at 75 became the oldest trainer to saddle a Kentucky Derby winner after decades as a rider and a small-time trainer, now has a chance to write himself into horse racing history.
And Espinoza, who grew up in poverty in Mexico and worked as a bus driver in Mexico City before moving to Northern California to ride, now has his second shot at a Triple Crown, having come up just short aboard War Emblem in 2002.
"It was tough today," Espinoza said. "It was tough because this race was just a little complicated. I bounced out of there running out of the gate, and I saw one horse with a lot of speed on the right. Then I saw somebody else come by on the turn, and he was trying to go with the other one. And I had to just like go steady, steady, and wait. And all of those things, I had to hope to make the right decision, let the horse clear me and sit in behind him, without irritating California Chrome. In a tenth of a second I had to make that decision, and hope for the best.
"As soon as I think of that, in a half mile, here comes the other one [Social Inclusion]. They attacked me too soon. There he goes. And I thought, wow, this is crazy, but I had to go. It was a big challenge for me. . . . It was more tiring mentally than physically."
Coburn, who turned down a $6 million offer for controlling interest in the colt before the Kentucky Derby, now looks like a genius. He said his partner, Perry Martin, didn't come to the Preakness because he had a bad experience at Churchill Downs. Martin said that the track didn't do a good job of accommodating his 84-year-old mother.
But Coburn said he'll drag his reclusive partner to New York City, if he has to.
"Honestly folks, I don't know how to explain how I feel within my heart and soul," Coburn said. "It's hard for me because I get very emotional about it. But I honestly believe this horse is America's horse.
“He's giving everybody that little light bulb that, when it clicks on, says you know what, we can do this. We can do this with just a little more try. We can do it. . . . We just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win."
Little guy, Big Apple, horse racing is in for a wild three weeks.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and WDRB-TV in Louisville. Eric Crawford is a columnist for WDRB.