The dream of a Triple Crown is still alive after California Chrome held off Ride on Curlin to take Saturday's 139th Preakness Stakes in an unofficial time of 1:54.84 at Pimlico.
After an excellent start, Chrome was content in third for the majority of the race until a late charge at the 3/4 mile saw him forge ahead of both Curlin and Social Inclusion, two horses pegged as potential upsetters. Chrome resisted the urge to set the pace from the outset, deferring to the lone filly, Ria Antonia and Pablo Del Monte, both longshots. Towards the end though, Chrome, Inclusion and Curlin separated themselves from the pack before the Derby winner accelerated towards the finish.
"It's an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome. ... Today it was just a crazy race. I got more tired mentally than physically. He's just amazing," jockey Victor Espinoza said after the race. Espinoza improved his record to 6-0 on Chrome after holding off (even brushing) Inclusion and Ride on Curlin down the back stretch.
Asked how he felt Chrome would handle the heightened stakes at Belmont and Espinoza laughed it off. "I hope OK. You never know until you run, but he seems like he's going to be alright."
One of the concerns heading into Saturday's race was the two-week turnaround from the Derby to the Preakness, but that didn't appear to impede Chrome whatsoever. Chrome's mid-week cough, which was actually just the result of a small blister, didn't appear to hamper him, either. He'll now have three weeks off before a shot at history.
"Wow. It's quite a thrill," trainer Art Sherman said of Chrome's feat on Saturday and the possibility of a Triple Crown horse. "I knew he had to run hard this race, just watching him perform, just coming back in two weeks, I was a little concerned. but I'll tell you one thing, he's a real race horse. I'm hoping that the mile-and-half is up his alley, too, because he's a very good horse," Sherman said between a slight crackle in his voice.
Chrome becomes the 34th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but only 11 have pulled off the feat, last achieved by Affirmed in 1978. Espinoza, trainer Art Sherman and owner Steve Coburn will have that chance at Belmont on June 7 in Elmont, New York. Known as "The Test of Champions," the mile-and-a-half course is the longest of all three races.
6:10 ET: In case you missed it, Mike Tyson and Tom Brady are at the Preakness, so naturally, this happened. Yes, race time is almost here.
6:00 ET: We're now about 15 minutes from race time, and most of the horses are saddled and have entered the race area. Victor Espinoza, aboard California Chrome (now at 3/5), is looking for the pair's sixth-straight victory.
5:30 ET: Five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert has Bayern running on Saturday, and he's currently at the third-best odds to win. Bayern's known for his fast starts, but the question is whether he'll be able to pace himself along the 1 3/16th mile track. If you're looking for fresh legs, Baffert's horse has just four career starts. "[Bayern's] gonna be part of the speed lineup and hopefully we can just relax a little bit and not go too fast," he said to NBC.
Of his jockey, Rosie Napravnik, Baffert said he typically shies away from offering any last-minute advice.
"I leave her alone, she knows the horse, she's been working the horse, everytime I give instructions it's usually the wrong ones, so I tell her, 'why'd you listen to me?'"
Speaking of Bayern, SMILE!
5:05 ET: The latest odds from Pimlico. Of note, favorite California Chrome was at 3/5 on Saturday morning, but bettors have shifted that line slightly for even less of a payout. The best odds may be on Social Inclusion, whose speed can match California Chrome.
1. Dynamic Impact 25-1
2. General A Rod 16-1
3. California Chrome 2/5
4. Ring Weekend 25-1
5. Bayern 11-1
6. Ria Antonia 17-1
7. Kid Cruz 12-1
8. Social Inclusion 10-1
9. Pablo Del Monte 60-1
10. Ride on Curlin 13-1
4:55 ET: Tom Brady's at the race! Better yet, he's no longer sporting his silly blonde mohawk from the Kentucky Derby, last seen two weeks ago. Here he is on Saturday:
Brady is a Preakness' pic.twitter.com/QEWsiuN4l0— Kevin Richardson MMA (@Karartwork) May 17, 2014
4:40 ET: So much of the Preakness (and horse racing in general) is the party along with the races, and the infield inside Pimlico has reportedly been packed all afternoon with performances from Nas and Lorde. There's also been no shortage of celebrity sightings so far. Here are a few:
— Kliff Kingsbury (@TTUKingsbury) May 17, 2014
— Scott Dance (@ssdance) May 17, 2014
4:15 ET Preakness Preview: In the days, now hours, ahead of today's Preakness, racing fans and gamblers alike have been fixated on the throat of Derby winner California Chrome.
He famously coughed a few times after Thursday's morning run, breeding questions about his health ahead of Saturday's 139th Preakness running at Pimlico.
A small blister was found – nothing that some glycerin throat wash couldn't alleviate – and his trainers are preparing as if the second leg of the Triple Crown is there for the taking, assuring everyone that Chrome is healthy. Given that there are relatively few realistic challengers in the already small field, trainer Art Sherman has reason to be optimistic.
And so that's where we stand, hours ahead of the 6:18 p.m. post time, with Chrome as the undeniable favorite at 3/5 odds to win. Chrome, winner of five straight races, should benefit from the smaller field (19 at Churchill Downs compared to just 10), but it remains to be seen how he'll respond with the quick two-week turnaround between races. He'll also need to resist matching an early swift pace, expected from Social Inclusion out of the No. 8 post.
Only two other horses in Saturday's field – Ride on Curlin and General A Rod – were in the Derby field, partially because of owners' hesitancy to race their horses without adequate rest.
Aside from Chrome out of the No. 3 post, the second best odds are on Social Inclusion at 5/1, and both Ride on Curlin (10th post) and Bayern (5th) are at 10/1 to wreck the Triple Crown dream. Curlin's seventh-place finish at the Derby, according to his trainers, was due to his jockey (probably true), and not the horse himself. Now Joel Rosario, last year's Derby winner, will man Curlin. One advantage for both Inclusion and Bayern, both known for their speed ratings, is that each horse has been raced relatively lightly and each should be fresh on Saturday.
Looking to take a flyer on an underdog? Check out Ria Antonia, the only filly in the race. Her odds aren't good at 30/1 but her jockey, Calvin Borel, has an extra incentive to win after being ousted from Ride On Curlin following the Derby.
Keep in mind that if Chrome wins, he'll become the 34th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but only 11 went on to win the Belmont. The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978.