The challenge for California Chrome

No one really knows how or why California Chrome suddenly developed into a veritable monster who has won six straight stakes, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

No one could foresee that he would improve from his modest 2-year-old form as a California-bred stakes winner into a powerful 3-year-old who is just one race away from sweeping the elusive Triple Crown.

Trainer Art Sherman, who galloped the great horse Swaps when he won the 1955 Kentucky Derby, doesn't really know how this happened. Jockey Victor Espinoza doesn't either. And the transformation hardly was caused by the 2-inch nasal strip he has been wearing since the streak started, a strip the New York stewards sensibly will allow him to wear in the Belmont Stakes.

"I just saw a good prospect getting more mature," Sherman tried to explain recently.

"I just thought he had a lot of potential, "Espinoza chimed in.

Both said they are astonished how the "Chrome from the West" has turned into a 24-carat-gold example of the best that thoroughbred racing has to offer.

But can California Chrome actually sweep the Triple Crown? Can he really carry his gilt-edged form to the Belmont Stakes' winner's circle on June 7?

After all, the 1-½ mile Belmont has stopped 12 pretty good horses in the same position since Affirmed was the last to win all three jewels in 1978.

In my judgment, the Preakness was California Chrome's best lifetime performance. Better than his Derby by far, better than his highly rated victory over Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby.


All four legs seem to be in the right place, and I think he'll be fine for the next round in New York.

"-- Art Sherman, trainer California Chrome

That's because California Chrome had to establish his position right from the start when a relatively fast pace was being set by Pablo Del Monte. California Chrome then had to glide into a good cruising gear for the next seven furlongs before accelerating on command to fight off a strong, relatively premature challenge by the promising Social Inclusion, who moved quickly to vie for the lead coming out of the final turn.

Finally, California Chrome had to show a genuine closing kick to outrun the strong late rally offered by Ride On Curlin through the final 3/16 mile. His final time was 1:54.84, which earned a solid 105 Beyer Speed figure.

So, with that performance, it was understandable that Sherman honestly stated two hours after the Preakness that his pride and joy was "noticeably tired."

Sherman did add with some relief: "All four legs seem to be in the right place, and I think he'll be fine for the next round in New York."

The next round is expected to include the dangerous Ride On Curlin, Social Inclusion and Kid Cruz. The latter finished an uninspiring eighth in the Preakness but is a son of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid and might appreciate the chance to compete in the longest Triple Crown event.

The lightly raced Social Inclusion held on to third in the Preakness after making his spirited bid in the upper stretch, and he could be in line for improvement.

Others expected to be in the starting gate for the 146th running of the Belmont include Commanding Curve, Danza, Wicked Strong and Samraat. Those four horses finished second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby while either holding their ground late or gaining several lengths on the winner despite having to deal with a moderate early pace. They will be joined by Intense Holiday, who was 12th in the Derby, and possibly Ring Weekend, who finished fifth in the Preakness after a very rough trip.

Of equal import, there will be at least two new shooters who will command serious attention -- Tonalist and Commissioner -- the 1-2 finishers in the important Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 10. Astute Triple Crown students know that the Peter Pan often is a valuable prep race for Belmont Stakes horses who skipped the Derby and/or Preakness.

While so much seems settled and routine for California Chrome, that is an illusion countered by plenty of history. Consider the circumstances that occurred when several Triple Crown bids failed.

In 1987, '89 and '98, Alysheba, Sunday Silence and Real Quiet were upset in the Belmont Stakes, respectively, by Bet Twice, Easy Goer and Victory Gallop. These three Belmont Stakes winners had finished second in their first two Triple Crown legs.

In 1997, Touch Gold did not run in the Kentucky Derby but finished a courageous fourth in the Preakness before narrowly getting the best of Silver Charm in the Belmont.

In 1999, Lemon Drop Kid, a flop in the Derby, used his good effort in the Peter Pan to upset Charismatic, who raced gallantly in the Belmont but broke down after the finish.

War Emblem, a speed horse who comfortably wired the Derby and Preakness in 2002, broke awkwardly in the Belmont and never got the lead en route to his disappointing eighth-place finish behind unheralded Sarava, winner of the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard.

At present, there is no word if trainer Neil Howard will enter Class Leader, who won this year's Sir Barton.

In 2003, Empire Maker, second to Funny Cide in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and won the Belmont Stakes in the manner that some of the horses who skipped this year's Preakness are hoping to duplicate.

The following year, Birdstone, a poor eighth in the Derby, caught heavily favored Smarty Jones at 36-1 in the Belmont to follow a familiar formula.

And then there was Big Brown in 2008 and I'll Have Another in 2012.

While Big Brown was a dominant winner in the Derby and Preakness, something unexplained to this day forced jockey Kent Desormeaux to pull him up at the top of the stretch while long-shot frontrunner Da' Tara was en route to a wire-to-wire upset at 38-1.

I'll Have Another, who seemed poised to finally break the Triple Crown drought in 2012, suffered a career-ending leg injury a day before the Belmont and never got his chance to join the immortal list of 11 great horses who did complete the sweep.

While Big Brown was a dominant winner in the Derby and Preakness, something unexplained to this day forced jockey Kent Desormeaux to pull him up at the top of the [Belmont] stretch.

Other issues may come to the fore during the next three weeks, and they could have a subtle impact on this historic race.

Ride On Curlin's trainer, William Gowan, may have to find another rider for the Belmont. The talented Joel Rosario rode Tonalist to his visually impressive victory in the Peter Pan, and Rosario's agent, Ron Anderson, is not sure which horse his rider will be aboard in the Belmont. The most likely sub would be Hall of Famer John Velazquez, a two time Belmont Stakes winner (Rags to Riches in 2007 and Union Rags in 2012).

Social Inclusion also may get a rider change, from Luis Contreras to a nationally prominent jockey familiar with Belmont's wide sweeping turns. Trainer Manuel Azpurua also cited some flaws in Social Inclusion's Preakness experience that he expects to correct.

Making only his fourth career start in the Preakness, Social Inclusion nearly washed out in the paddock and almost flipped in the starting gate. "He ran well in spite of all that," Azpurua said. "We think he's a very good horse still on his way up."

Wicked Strong, an impressive winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April, ran very well against the moderate pace to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and trainer Jimmy Jerkens strongly believes his colt has been training in improved fashion on his home track since the Kentucky Derby.

Bottom line, this much can be said about California Chrome's pending attempt to sweep the American Triple Crown:

It will not be easy.

Given what has happened in the past to dominant Derby and Preakness winners, and what could happen during the next three weeks, it might be more of a long shot than most are willing to admit. It also will be a whole lot of fun for all of us who will talk and write about it from now to post time, because we are fascinated by the challenge the Triple Crown presents and because we love this great game.