John Clay: Many have tried, but 'Chrome' might be the one

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 17, 2014 

BALTIMORE — Look out New York, here comes California Chrome.

"I might have to go to New York incognito," said Steve Coburn, the winning co-owner with his cowboy hat and his white mustache and his boisterous way. "I might have to get dreadlocks and some Billy Bob T's and I'm sliding in the back door."

"My wife is already on me about going to see a Broadway play," said Art Sherman, the 77-year-old winning trainer. "So I know I'm in trouble."

"Your wife must have been talking to my wife," boomed Coburn.

Jockey Victor Espinoza went to New York with a Triple Crown on the line once before, back in 2002 atop the front-running War Emblem, who came up short, so Espinoza should know a thing or two about what it takes to get the job done.

"You have to be a super horse to win that," said Espinoza.

Three weeks from now, that's exactly what we're going to find out.

On June 7 at the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., we're going to find out once and for all if California Chrome is indeed a super horse.

He certainly looked the part at Pimlico here Saturday, validating his Kentucky Derby victory — too slow, cried the critics — with a 1½ -length win before a record crowd of 123,469 for the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes.

"This race was tougher," Espinoza said. "This race was more complicated."

Chrome might have looked as if he was sitting in pretty much the same spot as he was at Churchill Downs two weeks back. He got a great break from the gate. He was sitting just off the pace. This time, however, said Espinoza, he had first one horse and then another coming at him to the point where he had to ask Chrome to run much earlier than when he won the roses.

It didn't matter. Chrome responded as he has in each of his previous five races, all wins, snatching the lead in the stretch, before holding off Ride On Curlin to win in 1:54.84, the fastest Preakness-winning time since Curlin's 2007 win in 1:53.46.

So what did the veteran Sherman think as he watched the first California-bred to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown?

"I didn't really see it clear, to be honest with you," the trainer said. "Everybody was standing up in front of me and I had a camera point-blank in my face."

"I had so many cameras in my face, I didn't even get to see the race," echoed Coburn. "Carolyn (his wife) said, 'He's in the lead.' I said, 'Where is he?' She said, 'He's in the lead, he's going to win the race.'"

Wait until the self-professed "little guys" from the Left Coast arrive in the Big Apple with the sports world waiting to see if the horse from a mare that cost $8,000 by a stallion with a $2,000 stud fee can do what no other horse has accomplished in 36 years.

"I'm kind of getting used to it now," said Sherman in the post-race news conference. "I feel like Willie Nelson, like a rock star, going through the airport."

"I need a whiskey," said Coburn as he sat beside Sherman, and soon enough he had one sitting in front of him. "This is just letting America know that the little guy can win."

Plenty have tried and failed to complete racing's biggest feat, but there just seems to be something about Chrome that could make this time different.

Maybe it's the six straight victories. Maybe it's the way he has taken full control in the stretch of these first two classics. Maybe it's the lack of one clear 3-year-old rival that seems fully capable of ending his run.

Maybe, as Coburn keeps saying, this was meant to be.

New York, here comes California Chrome.

Said Sherman, "I wouldn't want to be in anyone else's shoes, I can tell you that."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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