Time to shift gears

Circumstances dominate the Kentucky Derby, and stamina usually wins the Belmont. But talent takes the Preakness -- commanding, lordly, assertively eminent talent. The Preakness distills all the variables and all the factors down to the singularly overwhelming question of who's best. The middle jewel isn't the most famous or coveted, and it's certainly not the longest or most demanding, but it is indeed the most telling: The Preakness is the definitive race in the Triple Crown.

The Preakness peels away the pomp, minimizes the excuses and takes the sport to the center of things, where there's a pure horse race and the best horse wins.

In Kentucky, with an overflowing field of horses and a fraught atmosphere, where nearly everything's unfamiliar, and where trouble and jeopardy swarm like moths around a street light, the best horse can lose his way. And in New York, the Belmont Stakes has become something of an anachronism, or perhaps just a reminder of racing's heyday; it's the only major stakes remaining in America that's run at 1 ½ miles on dirt, and at that distance, the sheer grind of the series can catch up with even the best of horses. But in Baltimore, the Preakness peels away the pomp, minimizes the excuses and takes the sport to the center of things, where there's a pure horse race and the best horse wins.

And so Saturday afternoon at Pimlico, in the 139th Preakness, California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby winner, will prove he's the best racehorse of his generation, and in doing that he'll provide some measure, offer some metric, of his talent. He'll put on a show saying he's good while proving just how good. Or, if not that, he'll be exposed. Which will it be?

This isn't the Derby, where California Chrome glided around the track as if he were in a Rose Bowl Parade. When Wildcat Red and Vicar's In Trouble, who were expected to contribute to a lively pace, had trouble early, the pace didn't even reach a tepid temperature. Uncle Sigh led through an opening half-mile in 47.37 seconds, and because the fractions were so lazy, the field bunched up like freeway traffic behind a cement mixer. Trouble ensued. Virtually every contender in the Derby got blocked or bumped, or was checked, or raced wide -- except, of course, California Chrome, who cruised home untrammeled, unimpeded and untested.

But that won't happen again. Baltimore's a no-nonsense sort of place; the Preakness, a no-nonsense sort of race. By Saturday night, the sport will know if it has a genuine Triple Crown possibility or if it was momentarily blinded by the chrome.

Over the last 50 years, 58 percent of the Preakness winners have gone on to be named the champion 3-year-old male. (That, of course, doesn't include Rachel Alexandra, who was actually named the champion filly, as well as Horse of the Year.) During the same period, 44 percent of the Derby winners and 30 percent of the Belmont winners earned the honor.

In 2005, Afleet Alex had trouble from start to finish in the Derby; in 2001, Point Given began from the No. 17 post position and raced wide throughout; in 1988, Risen Star began from the dreaded No. 1 post position; and in 1986, Snow Chief got lured into the rapid, internecine pace set by the foremost speedster of the time, but they all returned two weeks later to win the Preakness.

The Derby is the most famous of races, but the Preakness the most revealing. That isn't to say circumstances don't scuttle a horse's chances in the Preakness from time to time -- Swale, who won the 1984 Derby and Belmont but finished seventh as the 4-5 favorite at Pimlico, comes to mind; rivals had him surrounded in Baltimore. And saying that the Preakness distance is more reflective of today's racing than the Belmont's doesn't imply that the 1 3/16 miles at Pimlico, still very long by quotidian standards, is any less testing. Bold Forbes, who won both the Derby and Belmont, couldn't last in the 1976 Preakness after taking a clear advantage into the stretch. In the Triple Crown, the Preakness, quite simply, is most likely to be a truly run race, and its outcome most likely to reverberate with significance. That's why 60 percent of its winners since 1964 have been champions and why Saturday's 139th will define both this year's Triple Crown and California Chrome.

Four or five days before the Kentucky Derby, in a reflective moment, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was talking about the points system for determining the field when he said that whatever system was employed, some good horses would inevitably be excluded. And this year, he said, two very good horses, as it turned out, were excluded from the Derby for lack of points: Bayern and Social Inclusion. But both are aimed at the Preakness.

It wasn't insufficient talent that kept them out of the Derby starting gate so much as their inexperience. Both have been romping, stomping winners, real dream-kindlers. In February at Santa Anita, Bayern won by 15 lengths, and then, returning from a minor setback, in his stakes debut, he ran third in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Most recently, he led from the start and finished first in the Derby Trial Stakes but was disqualified. Social Inclusion set a track record in only the second start of his career, at Gulfstream Park, and then he led for most of the Wood Memorial, moving clear in midstretch, only to falter in the final strides and finish third. Both horses have natural speed, maybe even sufficient speed to deprive California Chrome of that cozy self-satisfied feeling he had to be experiencing on the backstretch at Churchill Downs.

And then there's Dynamic Impact, a late-developer who's a smooth son of the Classic winner Tiznow. Dynamic Impact has won consecutive races, including the Illinois Derby, which he and highly regarded Midnight Hawk turned into a match race. At the wire, where Dynamic Impact surged and put his nose in front, they were more than eight lengths in front of the third horse. He needed five races to find the winner's circle, but having discovered it, he seems capable and even determined to make regular visits.

"Was his last race a fluke, or is he just getting that much better?" rhetorically asked his trainer, Sovereign Award winner Mark Casse. "If it wasn't a fluke, then he's going to be a horse that has to be reckoned with this year. But I still don't know what I have."

At this point, though, Casse conceded, California Chrome is "in a league of his own." His perfect, trouble-free stroll around Churchill for the Derby doesn't diminish the performance. In fact, that's an essential component of his talent: He can accelerate so quickly and shift gears so readily that he finds his way around trouble, like a scatback. Nor does the slow time of the Derby -- the slowest in 40 years on a "fast" track -- raise much doubt, given the context of his record. His winning performances in the Santa Anita Derby and the San Felipe were very fast; he didn't run faster in Kentucky simply because nobody forced him to. Having won five consecutive stakes, he has yet to be pushed to the periphery of his ability.

But that's going to change in the most telling and revealing of Triple Crown races. The pace will be more authentic and the pressure more intense with Bayern and Social Inclusion and Dynamic Impact in the game. Pablo Del Monte, scratched from the Derby, is intriguing. Ride On Curlin and General A Rod are going to try the flashy Californian again, too.

This will be the defining race: This will tell how good he is and whether the sport can seriously start thinking about jewelry. Saturday, at the venerable Old Hilltop in Baltimore, California Chrome is going to put on a show. Or else he'll be exposed. Which will it be?

From here, it looks like showtime:
1. California Chrome
2. Social Inclusion
3. Dynamic Impact
4. Bayern