BALTIMORE -- On Pimlico's lightning-quick track, California Chrome was provoking roars from the record 123,469 fans at Pimlico as he gamely batted aside one premature challenge after another, bursting to the front long before jockey Victor Espinoza had planned.
From his clubhouse vantage point, 5-foot-2 trainer Art Sherman didn't know if his horse, the 1-2 favorite, was first or last.
"Everybody was jumping up and down in front of me, and I had a camera point-blank in my face," said Sherman, who until his horse's remarkable emergence this spring had been training claimers. "But when I looked up (at the giant infield video board) I could see him starting to move away. I felt really good."
California Chrome, an appealing plebeian in the Sport of Kings, made a lot of people feel good Saturday, following up his Kentucky Derby triumph with an impressive Preakness victory that, for a 13th time in a historic 36-year drought, sets up the possibility of a Triple Crown celebration at the June 7 Belmont Stakes.
The previous twelve horses who won both races, as everyone in this troubled sport desperate for a super-horse savior knows all too well, failed.
This sixth straight victory for the California-bred horse, against a field filled with the same kind of rested opponents he'll need to fend off in New York, wasn't as easy as the previous five, in which his average winning margin was five lengths.
California Chrome led the last five-sixteenths and finished 11/2 lengths ahead of hard-charging Ride On Curlin. Social Inclusion was a distant third.
As the light softened on a gorgeous Baltimore afternoon, the winner broke cleanly and swiftly from the gate. Espinoza was settling in for another smooth trip, just off the lead, when long shots Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia moved alongside.
That challenge met, Espinoza, his mount third near the half-mile pole, said he thought he "was perfect." But just then, he was stunned again when Social Inclusion, a fresh speed horse that had been expected to move sooner, roared up to test the leaders.
"Wow," thought the jockey, who won the first two Triple Crown legs with War Emblem in 2002, "this is crazy."
California Chrome answered again, this time with an acceleration that would have doomed a more one-dimensional runner. He rushed to the lead and held it to the wire, despite Ride on Curlin's late run, as the crowd erupted with a joyful bellow that shook this 144-year-old track.
"I've never won at million-dollar races," said Sherman, 77, an ex-jockey. "I was always a claimer-type trainer. It's just an honor being blessed with a horse like him."
Both Sherman and equally working-class co-owner Steve Coburn indicated that as excited as they were about the history their bargain horse can make, they're dreading the attention and distractions that await in New York.
"My wife's already bugged me," said Sherman with a look of dread on his face. "She wants to see a play."
"So your wife's been talking to my wife, right?" guffawed the big, gregarious, and cowboy-hatted Coburn.
It won't be any easier for California Chrome. In the Belmont, he'll likely have to face newcomers, including Peter Pan Stakes winner Tonalist, who have been training solely for the Belmont, as well as Derby competitors like runner-up Commanding Curve, who skipped Pimlico to begin training for the 11/2-mile event.
"There are trainers out there that train horses just to upset the apple cart," Coburn said. "They need to change this sport to where those 20 horses that started in the Kentucky Derby are the only 20 eligible to run in all three races."
If he becomes the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win them all, the Dumb Ass Partners who own California Chrome will, in the end, be the smartest people in racing.
"I tell you," said Coburn when asked about his horse's Belmont chances, "I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes right now."
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