The wiseguys dismissed California Chrome in the Preakness, arguing that he was the luckiest horse on the track Derby Day where his trip was as smooth as expensive whiskey. What they didn't count on was that it would happen again in the Preakness.
Victor Espinoza's ride aboard California Chrome on Saturday was another masterpiece. The strongest challenge was supposed to come from Social Inclusion but his jockey Luis Contreras mysteriously took the speedy colt off the pace. That allowed Espinosa to settle into third behind two dueling long shots, Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia, the perfect spot to be.
Espinoza moved at the right time, pouncing on the front runners and taking the lead. Social Inclusion finally got untracked but Contreras had left him with too much to do and he ran out of gas. Ride On Curlin was making a good late run but he was never going to catch he the modestly bred horse out of California.
If Espinoza could have written a script prior to the race this is the script he would have written.
In a sport that has had way too many scandals to deal with lately these guys are squeaky clean.
So California Chrome has been lucky, but good athletes make their own luck. He has been in the right place at the right time because he has tractable speed. He held off the late run of Commanding Curve in the Derby because he is blessed with stamina. It was the same story yesterday when Ride On Curlin made a belated run. He is simply and clearly the best 3-year-old colt in the U.S. and no one should take anything away from him because he has had a couple of perfect trips.
But now comes the hard part.
Can he win the Belmont? Sure. Why wouldn't the best horse win the race? Will he win the Belmont? Probably not. Since 1978, the last year any horse won the Triple Crown, 12 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Not a one of them won the Belmont, including I'll Have Another who was scratched the day before. Espinosa knows the story all too well. He went into the 2002 Belmont with Derby-Preakness winner War Emblem, who lost all chance when he stumbled badly at the start.
The odds that all of them could have lost are nothing less than astronomical. It's not a coincidence; it has to be that the task of winning three races in five weeks on top of facing a fresh crew of challengers in the Belmont Stakes is more than most any horse can handle. It probably won't be any different for California Chrome, who will face numerous obstacles at Belmont Park. Can he hold up for another race? Can he go a mile-and-a-half? Will quality horses like Wicked Strong, Commanding Curve and Danza, who skipped the Preakness, have an insurmountable advantage on him? Will his luck run out and will he have a lousy trip, like War Emblem? The answers are maybe, maybe, maybe and maybe.
But let's worry about all that later.
This is a magical story heading to Belmont Park. California Chrome is so poorly bred that he ought to be pulling up the rear in a $1,500 claimer at the Pokahanta County Fair. He is owned by a couple of regular guys who are so self-deprecating that they call their stable "Dumb Ass Partners." Espinoza is a good guy. So is the trainer, Art Sherman. In a sport that has had way too many scandals to deal with lately these guys are squeaky clean. They are easy to root for.
And that's what 100,000 plus people will be doing in about three weeks out at Belmont Park. Everyone is hungry for a Triple Crown winner after a 36-year drought and so many failures in the third leg. Will this, finally, be the one? All you can do is hope.