The morning after California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby, his trainer, Art Sherman, met with the weary, the beleaguered and the insignificant -- with, in other words, the press -- outside his barn in the Churchill Downs stable area. Sherman explained that, yes, of course, they were going on to Baltimore and to the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel in sport's most famously baroque piece of jewelry. Elaborating, he said that running a horse again in two weeks was completely contrary to his preferred methods, but, well, this was the Triple Crown.
But if the central question of the Preakness is whether California Chrome can return in two weeks from his dominant victory at Churchill Downs and still be effective, then, to borrow a threadbare phrase from the Derby winner's connections, it's a done deal. Actually, at Pimlico the central question remains, as it was before the Derby: Just how good is California Chrome?
He sits atop the ESPN.com poll, of course, a place he has occupied since April 9. Until now, the poll focused on the Kentucky Derby and on the horses aimed in its direction, but the scope of the poll now widens to include all 3-year-olds. And so the sensational filly Untapable makes her debut in the poll at No. 2.
Could she be the best 3-year-old in the country? Maybe. Her Oaks performance -- with a fourth quarter-mile in 23.82 seconds, she ran the 1 ⅛ miles in 1:48.68, the second-fastest clocking in the history of the race -- was arguably much better than California Chrome's Derby -- with a final quarter-mile in 26.21 seconds, he completed the 1 ¼ miles in 2:03.66, the slowest clocking on a "fast" track since Cannonade's 2:04 in 1974.
Those who are fond of saying time only matters when you're in jail -- a fatuous chestnut if ever there was one, as if it's purely coincidental that Dr. Fager, Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Swaps and Kelso all set world records that still stand -- are probably right, for reasons they may not grasp, in that the time of the Derby doesn't reflect the quality of the winner. In a furlong, from the top of the stretch to mid-stretch, California Chrome opened up five lengths on the field, and from there he could glide home, and did. But the final time does indeed matter and is very significant because it suggests two things: first, that California Chrome didn't have to reach down to the depths of his talents to win and so will probably have little difficulty coming back in two weeks; second, that several horses behind him failed to perform up to their potential.
In fact, just about every contender except California Chrome had a trip that ranged somewhere along a scale starting with Apollo 13's journey to the moon that didn't get there all the way to Captain Cook's voyage to Hawaii that, well, didn't leave there. Wildcat Red, for example, bobbled and bumped and got shuffled back -- and that was only at the start. He was expected to force a lively pace, but when he was eliminated early and Vicar's In Trouble got bounced around in the opening sixteenth of a mile, the lively pace never developed. Wicked Strong, Danza, Dance With Fate - they all encountered serious trouble that compromised their performances. Candy Boy had a Captain Cook kind of journey.
The result was that California Chrome wasn't even tested. He had the sort of trip everybody should have at least once in his life -- everything was perfect. Granted, with his nifty athleticism and versatility, he'll usually ensure a good trip for himself. That's one of his strengths. But the discrepancy between his dream and everybody else's nightmare meant he had a relatively easy race, reflected in a very slow final time, and that suggests, more than anything, that he should be able to return in two weeks with a superlative performance.
But in part because of their troubles, his rivals in the Derby never called on California Chrome to sound the depth of his ability. So the question remains: Just how good is he? And will there be anybody in the Preakness who can force an answer out of him?
1. California Chrome
Although he won the Kentucky Derby by less than two lengths, he was five in front in mid-stretch, and from there he basically cruised home. In other words, California Chrome was dominant at Churchill Downs, where he scored his fifth consecutive stakes victory. He's obviously very deserving of the No. 1 spot in the poll. And so now the show moves to Baltimore, where he'll take on some newcomers to the series and where he'll be returning, of course, in just two weeks. He typically has had at least four or five weeks between starts. His connections have charmed racing, and he's obviously a horse of considerable talent.
Could she be the best 3-year-old in the country? Maybe. She was dominant in winning the Kentucky Oaks to remain unbeaten in three outings this year. And unlike the Derby, the Oaks was fast; she ran the 1 ⅛ miles in 1:48.68, or about a length faster than Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Untapable, however, isn't aimed at the Preakness, and there are no immediate plans for her to take on the "boys." Instead she'll make her next start at Belmont Park in either the Acorn Stakes or the Mother Goose, according to her trainer, Steve Asmussen.
Danza had a rough trip on his way to finishing third in the Derby: He got bumped around and shuffled back in the run to the first turn, and in the stretch he was involved in some more bumping while having to alter course to find running room. He's possible, but unlikely, for the Preakness. Winner of the Arkansas Derby, he's likely, though, to become a major player in the post-Triple Crown stakes since he's a lightly raced colt who just seems to be approaching his potential.
4. Wicked Strong
The Wood Memorial winner also had a rough trip in the Derby, stumbling at the start, getting bumped and racing wide throughout. Finishing fourth under the circumstances represented a good effort. A large colt who seems to do his best running on the straight, Wicked Strong might be better suited to Belmont Park, with its huge sweeping turns. He'll skip the Preakness and aim instead for the final race in the famed series.
5. Commanding Curve
For the second consecutive year, trainer Dallas Stewart sent out a long shot that finished second in the Kentucky Derby. Commanding Curve swung to the outside and came home with good energy to get within two lengths of California Chrome. But Commanding Curve never really threatened. He'll pass the Preakness and aim for the Belmont Stakes.
The King of Queens gave an admirable performance in Kentucky. Like many, he encountered traffic and bumping along the way, but he challenged California Chrome at the top of the stretch and then stayed on gamely, finishing fifth. The classic distance is simply a little beyond his reach, but up to nine furlongs he can run with the best of his generation, as he showed while winning the Withers and the Gotham Stakes.
The runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby was scratched out of the Kentucky Derby because of a bruised foot. An examination then revealed a bone spur, which was surgically removed. Hoppertunity, who actually turned 3 on May 7, has a bright future nevertheless. He'll be on the shelf a month or so before resuming training. But he could return to be a major player this fall.
8. Social Inclusion
He was scratched out of a minor stakes, the Sir Bear, at Gulfstream Park because of bruised foot. But he arrived at Pimlico on Thursday to begin preparing for the Preakness. He's obviously extremely talented, as he showed while winning his second start by 10 lengths and then again while finishing third in the Wood Memorial. At the very least, the speedster will have an impact on the Preakness, and he could be an upset possibility.
9. Dance With Fate
Like many, Dance With Fate had a troubled trip in the Derby, where he rallied to finish sixth. All things considered, the Blue Grass Stakes winner gave a good performance at Churchill Downs. And although he's best known for his accomplishments on synthetic surfaces, he probably deserves another chance to show what he can do on dirt.
10. Ride On Curlin
Darting to the rail immediately, he saved ground in the Derby only to find himself blocked in traffic when the serious running began. He then had to swing to the outside, where he finished with interest and energy to be seventh. He'll go on to Baltimore, where Joel Rosario will replace jockey Calvin Borel for the Preakness.
Also receiving votes: Bayern (17), Shared Belief (15), Cairo Prince (12), Honor Code (10), Australia (9), Mr. Speaker (9), Constitution (8), Kingman (8), Candy Boy (7), Intense Holiday (7), Top Billing (4), Kid Cruz (4), Havana (3), Medal Count (3), Embellishing Bob (2), General a Rod (1), My Miss Sophia (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.