LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's more inevitable than fair, but the speculation will begin immediately. Could California Chrome be the one? Could he become the 12th horse ever and the first since 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown?
Give that question a big maybe, a giant maybe, perhaps a visible-from-outer-space maybe. After all, there's a reason no horse has done it in 36 years. But with two-thirds of the challenge remaining, the Preakness on May 17 and the Belmont Stakes on June 7, California Chrome could have two mighty factors in his favor.
Reflecting on the circumstances that contribute to a sweep, D. Wayne Lukas identified the two most essential: a superior horse and inferior opposition. As it turned out, Charismatic met some very good horses in that 1999 Belmont Stakes, where he finished third; but the factors Lukas identified then still hold. And they just might be in play this year.
California Chrome made Saturday's 140th Kentucky Derby look like a jog through the park. As for his opposition, many had troubled trips at Churchill Downs, it's true, but at this point the only 3-year-old that seems capable of challenging the Derby winner down the road is traveling a different road. The Kentucky Oaks winner, Untapable, will not run in the Preakness, her trainer, Steve Asmussen, said Sunday morning. The sensational filly will wait instead for either the Acorn Stakes on June 7 or the Mother Goose Stakes on June 28 at Belmont Park.
As for California Chrome, he's aimed at the Preakness. His trainer, Art Sherman, said California Chrome would probably remain at Churchill Downs three or four days before traveling to Pimlico in Baltimore, perhaps by van.
"When I got here this morning, he was asleep," said Sherman, who typically arrives at his barn long before sunrise. California Chrome ate all but a handful of his feed, Sherman said, and seemed, quite expectedly, a little tired Sunday morning. But then he became "feisty."
When I got here this morning, he was asleep.
"-- Trainer Art Sherman on California Chrome
California Chrome's Derby was the slowest run on a "fast" track in 40 years. On a day when the surface was faster and kinder to speed than usual, California Chrome ran the 1¼ miles in 2:03.66, with a dawdling final quarter-mile in 26.21 seconds. And why should he have run any faster? Commanding Curve rallied strongly to finish second, nearly two lengths back, but he never threatened. From the moment the field straightened for the run down the backstretch, after a casual opening half-mile in 47.37 seconds, California Chrome had it won.
A length and a half off the lead, and in perfect stalking position, he seemed to be having good time, gliding comfortably along, his ears pricked. Afterward, winning jockey Victor Espinoza told Sherman that he eased up the colt and saved something for next one.
Meanwhile, others struggled. Danza, who finished third, got bumped around early and had to alter course late. From his No. 19 post position, Wicked Strong raced wide throughout. Candy Boy, Vicar's In Trouble, Medal Count, Dance With Fate, Ride On Curlin -- they all encountered trouble and traffic, getting bumped in some cases and having to check in others. It was a roughly run Derby, but California Chrome outran the trouble.
That's one of his virtues. His athleticism enables him to avoid trouble. Based on the Derby, slow as it was, it's hard to say just how good he might be. But this was obvious: He's much better than those that lined up against him.
The day after the Kentucky Derby, there wasn't a long line of challengers going to Baltimore. Commanding Curve, the runner-up, is possible, according to his trainer, Dallas Stewart, and so is Ride On Curlin, who rallied strongly to finish seventh after being blocked in traffic.
But California Chrome's biggest challenge in Baltimore could come from a horse that didn't race in the Derby -- Bayern, perhaps, who was disqualified after finishing first in the Derby Trial, or Pablo Del Monte, or Social Inclusion. Kid Cruz, the winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, is aimed at the Preakness, as is Dynamic Impact, the impressive winner of the Illinois Derby. Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend and Hopeful winner Strong Mandate are also possible.
Can California Chrome sweep the Triple Crown? Maybe. Who's going to stand in his way? Sunday Silence would have swept the Triple Crown if not for Easy Goer, who would have swept the Triple Crown if not for Sunday Silence. Is there a Birdstone, a Touch Gold or a Victory Gallop out there waiting for California Chrome? Maybe, but at this point, he looks as if he could be superior, and his opponents have yet to define themselves as anything but ordinary.