Preakness 2014: Obstacles for California Chrome
With the 140 Kentucky Derby recorded in the history books, attention shifts to Maryland and the 2014 Preakness Stakes. The question on everyone's lips is “Does he have what it takes to win the Triple Crown?” I'm talking, of course, about the sensational California Chrome, the Derby favorite who didn't disappoint.
We've seen how California Chrome, brilliantly piloted by Victor Espinoza, rated just off of the pace set by Uncle Sigh and Chitu. The sparkling Chestnut took over after a mile and opened up by five lengths at one point in the stretch. He coasted under the wire 1 ¾ lengths in front of the late-charging Commanding Curve. I’ll have Another, the last horse to come out of California to win the Kentucky Derby also won the Preakness. He maintained a three race win-streak entering the Preakness. California Chrome, like last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Orb, carries a five race win streak into the Preakness. Will all of those victories finally catch up to California Chrome?
According to the early speculation, only two of the Kentucky Derby contenders will tangle with California Chrome in the Preakness Stakes. California Chrome’s greatest challenger in the second leg of the Triple Crown may come from Danza, the quickly improving third place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps a newcomer will try to upset the race. Good luck with that. Since 1984, only three horses that didn't compete in the Kentucky Derby won the Preakness – Red Bullet, Bernardini and Rachel Alexandra.
At this point, California Chrome is the likely favorite for the Preakness Stakes. That doesn't bode well for the Derby hero. Since 1984, only four favorites have won the race. Last year, Orb was highly regarded and on paper, he out-classed the Preakness field. In reality, although the Derby winner sat a little closer to the pace than usual, he could muster no better than a fourth place finish behind the little-respected pace setter, Oxbow.
In 2012, front-running Bodemeister was favored over the Derby champ I'll Have Another, but was beaten by a heartbreaking neck. The year before that, Animal Kingdom was rightfully made the Preakness favorite after his dominating Derby win. While Animal Kingdom dawdled at the back of the pack during the opening quarters, the swift, tenacious Shackleford used his tactical speed to sit a couple of lengths off of the leader. Turning for home, Animal Kingdom cut into Shackleford's lead with every stride, but he was left with too much to do. Shack spoiled the Animal's Triple Crown quest by a dwindling ½ length.
Does California Chrome’s running style fit the Preakness?
That brings us to running styles in the Preakness. There's a wildly held theory that inside speed rules at Pimlico. Speed defined as a horse that runs on or within two lengths of the lead. Since 2000, this has been true half of the time, and only two horses, the pronominal Rachel Alexandra, and last year’s winner, Oxbow, have wired the field. Six Preakness champs since 2000 proved that they could sit between fourth and tenth place and still get the job done. Remember, the 1 3/16 mile race distance is only half a furlong shorter (330 feet) than the Kentucky Derby, so a horse that is suspect to navigate the nine to ten furlong range won't find the Preakness a cakewalk.
What about the tight turns? The turns at Pimlico aren't any tighter than those at Churchill. Both tracks are a mile oval, but Pimlico is 50 feet narrower and the stretch is 1,152 feet compared to Churchill’s 1,234. Our Derby champ is extremely athletic and has proven that he can cut corners, and gun them down in the stretch.
Tactical speed is beneficial at Pimlico. Since California Chrome naturally likes to be close to the lead, he should be able to track the front running speed and unleash his powerful kick as they hit the stretch. He runs his own race and isn't hampered by what is going on around him. The good horses do that.
What about the jock?
Victor Espinoza has been down the Triple Crown trial before. In 2000, he piloted War Emblem to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. A year later, he finished third with Congaree in the Kentucky Derby and finished second with A.P. Valentine the same year in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Since starting his racing career in Mexico in 1992, Victor Espinoza has finished in the money on almost half of his 20,423 mounts and earned over $162 million dollars. Currently Espinoza is ranked sixth in the national jockey standings, with a 19% win rate and he hustles 46% of his mounts into the money. Considering that Victor has piloted half the number of horses than five of the six riders ahead of him in the rankings, that’s an excellent rate of performance.
Reviewing the Trainers and Challengers
Although trainer Art Sherman was the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, the 2014 Triple Crown trail is his first rodeo as a trainer. Sherman keeps a small barn and applies classic, time-honored training methods to his charges. Along with California Chrome’s talent, Art Sherman’s ability to put a bottom, or foundation into the horse was likely the key to the Derby Champ’s ability to win at 1 ¼ miles.
Among the early Preakness entries, only one trainer, Bob Baffert has entered the Preakness winners’ circle. Baffert has won the race five times, twice back-to-back. His last winner was Lookin At Lucky in 2010. This year, he’s entered the front-running Bayern, who held on desperately to win the Derby Trial by a nose. Bayern may have the skilful Rosie Napravnik on board. She will become only the third woman jockey to ride in the Preakness.
Graham Motion returns to Pimlico with Calder Derby runner-up Ring Weekend. He trained the 2011 Kentucky Derby champ Animal Kingdom to a second place finish in the Preakness and in 2012 his charge Went The Day Well was tenth.
Todd Pletcher may have the strongest challenger to California Chrome with his entry, Derby third place finisher Danza. Pletcher hasn’t entered a horse in the Preakness since 2011, when Dance City finished fifth.
Last year, Tom Amoss’ Mylute was third in the Preakness. This year, Amoss will send Rita Antonia to follow in Rachel Alexandra’s hoof prints. The filly has big horse shoes to fill. Ria Antonia owns only a maiden win to her name and was sixth in the Kentucky Oaks.
Wesley Ward withdrew Pablo Del Monte from Kentucky Derby contention and instead is targeting the Preakness. Ward’s charges Pleasant Prince was eleventh and Flashpoint was fourteenth in the 2011 Preakness.
William Gowan’s Ride On Curlin was a disappointing seventh in the Derby after a poor ride by Calvin Borel. The son of Preakness hero Curlin gets a jockey switch to Joel Rosario, who won last year’s Derby on Orb and in 2012 finish third in the Preakness aboard Creative Cause. Nine Preakness heroes have sired Preakness winners. If Ride On Curlin wins, his Champion sire will add this distinction to his list of accomplishments.
Three trainers are new to the Preakness scene.
Florida-based Manny Azpurua will saddle his first horse in the Preakness. The pace setting Social Inclusion will attempt to regain his spectacular winning ways in the Preakness. He tired to third in the Wood Memorial.
Fresh from his Illinois Derby victory, Dynamite Impact will try to score the hat trick in the Preakness. Trainer Mark Casse is Canada’s answer to Todd Pletcher. Casse has won the Outstanding Trainer Sovereign Award for three years straight.
Kid Cruz is the only Preakness entrant with a start over the Pimlico surface. The 3 ½ length victor of the Federico Tesio Stakes is the only confirmed stalker in the race. His trainer Linda Rice can often be found having her photo taken in the winners’ circle at Belmont and Saratoga. Rice will be looking to become the first woman trainer to win the Preakness.
At this point there doesn't appear to be chinks in California Chrome’s armor or a rival that comes close to flashing the talent that he's shown. We won’t know until the gate opens if California Chrome’s five race win streak or effort in the Kentucky Derby will reverse his form. I didn’t give much credence to the colt entering the Kentucky Derby based upon his pedigree. I’m a believer now.