LOUISVILLE — When Art Sherman came to Barn 20 on the Churchill Downs backstretch beneath darkened skies early Sunday morning, he found newly minted Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in a stone cold sleep.
The toll of running 11/4 miles while shouldering more expectations than he will ever know could have knocked the chestnut colt out. Once California Chrome arose from his deserved slumber, he indicated to his trainer there indeed is more left in the tank.
"He's amazing, today he acted like he didn't even run," Sherman said less than 24 hours after becoming at age 77 the oldest trainer to win the Derby. "He was pretty feisty when he got up, he tried to grab me a couple of times. He's like 'Hey, I just won the Derby' and I was like 'You better behave yourself, you're getting a little high and cocky.'"
The ever-humble Sherman acknowledged he is thrilled to indulge his charge's moments of ego. Baring unforeseen setbacks, California Chrome and his entourage will be moving on to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes on May 17 where the son of Lucky Pulpit is expected to be a huge favorite in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
His 13/4-length victory over Commanding Curve marked the fifth straight win for California Chrome dating to last December. That is also as close as any horse has gotten to him over the last six months. His combined win margin over the span is 26 lengths.
Debate over a Derby winner's Triple Crown potential is customary in the day-after activities. Given the sustained run of dominance California Chrome has had, such talk was far from lip service on Sunday.
"I don't want to put that curse on him," trainer Rick Violette Jr., who saddled Samraat to a fifth-place run in the Kentucky Derby, said of California Chrome's history-making potential. "But, he was pretty wound up in the chute ... he was pretty excited in the paddock and every indication was that he might boil over. And he didn't. He ran his 'A' game and drew off.
"He's still got to win two more. But if we're not racing against him I wish him all the best. He's the only one who can do it this year."
Sherman joked he "kind of pinched myself this morning" as he absorbs what California Chrome has achieved. Keeping the colt fresh is now his new priority as he readies for what will be the 12th career start for Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred.
California Chrome's tactical style makes him an ideal fit for the 13⁄16-mile Preakness, but the two-week turnaround is weighing heaviest on Sherman's mind. He will not work California Chrome before the race and will keep him at Churchill Downs for about 4-5 days before likely vanning to Pimlico Race Course.
"I'm always concerned, I've never run a horse back in two weeks," Sherman said. "I just wish there was a little more time. Then they're sitting in the wings with fresh horses waiting for me.
"(Jockey) Victor Espinoza said he got a little tired but ... he kind of eased him up in the last 70 yards. He could have just gone on and opened up and he did the right thing because he knows if he goes on to the Preakness, I'm just going to freshen him up."
Of the 18 horses behind California Chrome in the Derby, seventh-place finisher Ride On Curlin seemed the most definite to wheel back to take him on again in Baltimore.
Ride On Curlin was taken to the rear of the field and angled sharply to the rail by jockey Calvin Borel out of post No. 19 in the Derby, and was further compromised by the tepid fractions up front.
"Hell no, I wasn't happy (with the trip). I had a shot to win the Kentucky Derby," trainer Billy Gowan said. "Once he got a clear run he was flying on the end of it but it was a little too late. He was dead last off a slow pace. It was just too much to make up."
Dallas Stewart, trainer of Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, said the bay ridgling was in good order Sunday but put his status as "50-50" to go to Baltimore.
"We'll see, I'm not rushing into anything either way," Stewart said. "We'll see how healthy he is, make sure he's doing as well as he was coming into (the Derby)."
Eclipse Thoroughbred's Arkansas Derby winner Danza made a huge run to get third in the Kentucky Derby after getting slammed by stablemate Vinceremos the first time past the stands. The son of Street Boss is slated to ship to New York on Monday where his status for the Preakness will be evaluated.
"I couldn't be more proud of the horse's effort considering the multiple obstacles he was presented with during the race, " Eclipse president Aron Wellman said. "It started when Vinceremos absolutely annihilated him the first time around. I can't even count how many different moves he had to make throughout to stay in contention.
"Considering he's run two huge races in a three-week time span, our first business is to evaluate the horse. We'll let him tell us what he's ready and willing to do."
Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong, said it's doubtful he would send the Grade I Wood Memorial to the Preakness. Same for Violette, whose charge Samraat was nosed out for fourth.
"It was a typical Samraat performance. He ran his eyeballs out and gave us what he had," Violette said. "I would lean towards not (going to the Preakness). California Chrome looks like the real deal. I think we would look (at the Belmont Stakes) as he galloped out awfully well yesterday."
Trainer Steve Asmussen confirmed that he and owner Winchell Thoroughbreds would not send Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable to face males in the Preakness.
"We didn't feel it was in her best interest to run back in the two weeks at this stage," said Asmussen, who added that Tapiture, 15th in the Derby, would also bypass the Preakness. "I definitely do (want to face males) in her future."
The possible contenders for the Preakness according to Maryland Jockey Club officials Sunday morning are: California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve, Pablo Del Monte, Social Inclusion, Kid Cruz, Dynamic Impact and Ring Weekend. Grade I winner Strong Mandate is also under consideration for the race, as is Bayern.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.