BALTIMORE — Confidence ran high in the Kentucky Derby champion.
Bred for stamina by one of America’s grand, old racing families and fine-tuned by one of the sport’s most respected trainers, Orb went off as a commanding 3-5 favorite in the 2013 Preakness Stakes.
Two minutes later, he was another failed Triple Crown aspirant, having failed to fight his way out of traffic after starting from the No. 1 post. He would never win another race.
Turns of fortune are swift and unpredictable in thoroughbred racing, even for the champions who appear least vulnerable. That inherent unpredictability will be a major theme Saturday as California Chrome, lines up for his shot at the Preakness.
If anything, he might go off as an even stronger favorite than Orb. California Chrome hasn’t lost this year and has demonstrated the kind of versatile speed needed to deal with shifting race dynamics. He’s by far the most accomplished entrant in a 10-horse field analysts describe as significantly weaker than the Kentucky Derby field of two weeks ago.
And yet so many things could go wrong — an unsteady start, early traffic, a minor injury, a blinding run by a lightly tested competitor such as Social Inclusion.
“I think California Chrome will have to be off his game to lose,” said trainer Graham Motion, who brought Animal Kingdom to Pimlico as the Derby champion in 2011. “But all you think about those two weeks are the things that can go wrong. You’re holding your breath the whole time.”
Motion will saddle Ring Weekend against California Chrome, in part based on his understanding that even the greatest champions can falter on any given Saturday.
Art Sherman knows this all too well. The 77-year-old trainer has seen his share of cruel twists in six decades around racing, and he knows his horse became everyone’s target the moment he crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs.
He worries about everything from California Chrome catching a cold to the rainy forecast ahead of Saturday’s race to a two-week turnaround he admits is quick for his taste.
“You go into these races thinking your horse is really going to perform good, but racing luck means so much,” Sherman said. “I don’t feel really anything until he gets in the gate. That’s my biggest concern, is the first 70 yards leaving there. I think it’s so important to any racehorse to get away from the gate without getting knocked down or impeded in any way, getting behind horses where you have no place to go. We’ve seen the best horse get beat many a time with bad racing luck. So all I do is hope he has a good trip.”
Those taking a second shot at California Chrome seem to hope the racing fates will turn from his favor to theirs.
“California Chrome is an awful nice horse,” said Billy Gowan, who will saddle Ride On Curlin in the Preakness after a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. “But I’d like to get a good, clean trip and see what my horse is made out of.”
Asked if sees any vulnerability in the favorite, General a Rod trainer Mike Maker said: “No, I don’t … other than anything can happen in horse racing.”
That truism has been evident throughout this 3-year-old season, as California Chrome’s top rivals have fallen victim to sudden injuries (Hoppertunity, Constitution, Cairo Prince), unlucky starting positions (Wicked Strong) and other twists of fate. Only the Derby champion has avoided all the pitfalls.
That’s to his credit, said NBC racing analyst Randy Moss.
“He tends to make his own luck,” Moss said. “He’s such a naturally fast horse and so manageable that (jockey Victor) Espinoza can use his speed early to get good position and then put him wherever he wants.”
That versatility sets him apart from Orb, said Moss’ colleague, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey.
“Orb was a dead closer,” Bailey said. “Dead closers are subject to the amount of speed in the race and traffic he has to get through. He needs pace and he has to get lucky navigating through traffic. A horse like Chrome is a speed horse that will rate. … At any point in time, he can take control of the race, and that’s always dangerous.”
California Chrome faced major doubts going into the Kentucky Derby, with rival horsemen questioning his modest pedigree, his ability to run outside California and Sherman’s inexperience on American racing’s biggest stage.
Even after his decisive victory, some skeptics remain because his winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest since 1974 on a Derby track with “fast” conditions.
But Moss said California Chrome displays a rare burst at the top of the stretch. “That Derby time looks like an aberration,” he said. “It’s almost a situation where you go with your eyes and not the clock.”
Pimlico handicapper Gabby Gaudet sees him as a stronger favorite than Orb was last year and the clear class of a modestly talented field.
“He doesn’t need a perfect trip to win,” she said. “Any other horse in the field is going to have to run the race of his life to beat him.”
Watching California Chrome hold his lead down the stretch at Churchill Downs, Gaudet got the feeling he had a few levels left in reserve. She perceives only one tactical risk — that Espinoza might struggle to keep his horse from a chasing a fast early pace.
The talk all week at Pimlico has centered on the early speed in the Preakness. Many expect challengers such as Bayern, Pablo Del Monte and Social Inclusion to set an aggressive pace. California Chrome likes to run near the lead, so he could exhaust himself making his move too early, the thinking goes. On the other hand, he has won before in similar circumstances.
“The Preakness field is different to me because of the speed-laden horses that are in there,” Sherman said. “I’ve watched Bayern run at Santa Anita and he’s got a lot of gas. I’ve seen there are a couple of new shooters in here. (Pablo Del Monte) has speed. Social Inclusion has speed. I’m just going off paper. But my horse, people don’t realize, has got a little gas himself.”
In fact, he said, California Chrome loves a speedy target to shoot for.
Social inclusion is the one horse analysts describe as more than a long shot to beat California Chrome. He’s only started three times and finished third at the April 5 Wood Memorial against the first elite field he’d faced.
But his times from two victories in Florida reveal one of the few 3-year-olds with enough talent to beat a prime California Chrome. Owner Ron Sanchez doesn’t sound like a long-shot dreamer when he weighs his colt’s chances against the Derby champion.
“We have to make a huge effort to beat him,” Sanchez said. “But he’s going to be forced to run a little bit harder early in the race than he ever has.”
It’s the one showdown handicappers seem genuinely excited to see.
Moss envisions Social Inclusion breaking to the lead with little obstruction and setting the kind of blistering pace California Chrome has never confronted. The Derby champion would turn on his usual burst at the top of the stretch and the pair would duel to the end. Would Social Inclusion hold up better than he did at the Wood? Would California Chrome be able to catch a truly gifted sprinter over 1 3/16 miles?
Such questions could make for great drama Saturday evening and reveal the depths of California Chrome’s talent.
“It’s potentially the greatest problem he’s ever had to deal with,” Moss said.
The Baltimore Sun’s Don Markus contributed to this article.