Sizing up the Preakness field

It came as little surprise that California Chrome was installed as the 3-5 favorite for Saturday's Preakness Stakes. The horse has literally done nothing wrong this year, and on paper, the race should be even easier than his victory in the Kentucky Derby.

What has provided a bit of drama, though, is the horses that will run against him.

Although 18 other horses lined up against California Chrome in the Run for the Roses, only two of them -- Ride On Curlin and General a Rod -- are willing to try again in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. That alone speaks volumes.

The thing is, California Chrome has answered every question asked of him this spring. He has won five races in a row by a combined 26 lengths, and given his performance in the Kentucky Derby, there is no reason to think he shouldn't handle everything that will be thrown at him in the Preakness.

The horse should win. It is that simple.

The Triple Crown does funny things to owners, and the chance to run in one of America's classic races leads to interesting decisions. Perhaps the most surprising entry was that of the filly Ria Antonia.

However, it wouldn't be a major sporting event if everyone didn't argue about various ways California Chrome could lose. The pace might not set up for him. Some less-seasoned horses might be freaks that just haven't had a chance to let their flags fly yet. Mars could start to orbit Venus.

Through all the speculation, trainer Art Sherman has remained positive, and who can blame him?

"My horse is kind of push-button," he said. "People don't know that he's got enough lick that he can stay with any horse in the race. He likes a target to run at, and I know that [jockey] Victor [Espinoza] is going to ride him well."

Of course, the Triple Crown does funny things to owners, and the chance to run in one of America's classic races leads to interesting decisions. Perhaps the most surprising entry was that of the filly Ria Antonia.

Normally, I'm actually all for the girls taking on the boys. It is not nearly as unusual in the rest of the world as it is here. But usually it is a filly that has proved she deserves the chance.

Ria Antonia has crossed the wire first once in her life, and that was a maiden special weight contest last July. She then won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last November through a controversial disqualification. As a 3-year-old, she has not tasted victory and comes into the Preakness off a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks. She has also been moved from trainer to trainer to fit her connection's whims.

In other words, odds are, Rachel Alexandra she is not. However, she met the qualifications to enter, so she is free to run.

"We're very happy with what we're trying to do," said owner Ron Paolucci. "We've always wanted to run in this race. She's a very big filly and very sound. The fact that she's coming back in two weeks gives her an absolute edge."

Paolucci was not the only owner who had interesting comments to make after the post position draw. Ron Sanchez owns Social Inclusion, who was installed as the second choice at 5-1. The colt finished third in the Wood Memorial last time out after winning his first two starts by 17½ lengths, and he is expected to be a strong pace factor.

That Social Inclusion has talent is not in question. However, the reason he didn't run the Kentucky Derby is that he didn't qualify for it. He has yet to win a single stakes race, but that hasn't stopped Sanchez from being pretty confident.

"My horse is more experienced now, and he is multifaceted," he said. "He has speed and strength. Everyone is impressed with California Chrome. I think he'll run a good race, but this is a better field. Every owner here thinks they can beat California Chrome, but obviously the oddsmaker didn't think so."

It is one thing to be confident and another to be questionably overconfident. I am willing to bet at least one horse in the field was entered because his connections are hoping California Chrome has the first bad day of his 3-year-old season, but if not, well, second in a $1.5 million race isn't too shabby.

"

Everyone is impressed with California Chrome. I think he'll run a good race, but this is a better field. Every owner here thinks they can beat California Chrome, but obviously the oddsmaker didn't think so.

" -- Ron Sanchez, owner Social Inclusion I also quirked an eyebrow at the concept that this is a better field than the one assembled for a race Social Inclusion wasn't good enough to run in.

Interestingly enough, Social Inclusion was one of two incredibly hyped horses this spring that will run Saturday. The other is Bayern. Both colts did not run as juveniles and both tried to make the Derby field but were unable to do so.

The Preakness has served as a coming out party for future champions, but I haven't seen enough to think either colt is the next Bernardini or Curlin. I also haven't heard any reason good enough to go against California Chrome come Saturday.

I liked Ride On Curlin to close in the Derby and am willing to give him another chance here to hit the board. His trip was not fantastic in Louisville, but part of me also wonders if he is always going to be that horse who gets going when it is too late to really be a factor.

Of the new shooters, the one I am most intrigued by is Dynamic Impact, who won the Illinois Derby. Prior to last year, when Churchill Downs changed to a points system to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Dynamic Impact might have run on the first Saturday in May. For political reasons, the Illinois Derby is not part of the new points system.

As it is, Dynamic Impact won the first time he tried graded stakes company, and he also has a pedigree that says he should only get better as he gets older. I am curious to see if he progresses or not, and I can't blame his owners for rolling the dice here.

Still, even with the understanding that there are no guarantees in horse racing and that picking the favorite is boring, sometimes that's just how it goes. I have looked at this from every angle, and if the California Chrome who showed up in Louisville shows up in Baltimore, it is his race to lose.

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