LOUISVILLE — Dale Romans didn't buy into it. The Eclipse Award-winning trainer didn't believe the hype would be backed by substance, didn't think the racing community was doing anything but setting itself up for disappointment come the evening of May 3.
To Romans' credit, he can do a mea culpa as well as he does brash. And four days after race-favorite California Chrome threw a 13/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby in the face of doubters, a converted Romans found himself in the camp of those defending the colt.
"I didn't like anything about him before (the Derby), but he won so easy," said Romans, who saddled Medal Count to an eighth-place finish that day. "At the sixteenth pole, (jockey Victor Espinoza) starts pulling him up. I don't care about the 2:03."
The '2:03' Romans referred to is more specifically 2:03.66 — California Chrome's final time for his 11/4-mile journey, the slowest clocking for the Kentucky Derby over a track rated "fast" since Cannonade won in 2:04 in 1974.
With five straight wins to his credit that boast a combined margin of victory of 26 lengths, there are no obvious holes to be poked at with California Chrome heading into Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the middle leg of the Triple Crown.
His relatively pedestrian time in the Derby, however, has been a skeptic's topic in the days since his stalk-and-pounce victory, with some questioning whether he is actually on the regress end of what has been tremendous form.
"Chrome's last quarter was slow, but he won — he won, and you've got to have respect about that," said Ron Sanchez, owner of Social Inclusion who will be among the 'new shooters' slated to face California Chrome in the Preakness. "I think probably in this race, the last quarter will be faster than the Derby. That doesn't mean that California Chrome can't run faster. So I have respect for the horse, and I think this (Preakness) field is better than the Derby field. And now California Chrome has to prove again that he is the best 3-year-old."
History points out that just because a Derby winner's final time isn't greased lightning doesn't mean he isn't on track to being the best of his generation — and then some.
When eventual champion and Hall of Famer Alysheba recovered after clipping heels in the stretch to capture the 1987 Kentucky Derby, his final clocking was 2:032⁄5 also over a fast track.
Fellow Hall of Famer Sunday Silence hit the line in 2:05 over a muddy track in the 1989 Derby, while Charismatic crossed the wire in 2:03.29 over a fast track in 1999 en route to being named Horse of the Year.
How the Churchill Downs track plays race-to-race, hour-by-hour is also an intangible not always spelled out in black and white figures. From the time the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes was contested on the dirt to the time this year's Derby went to post at 6:50 p.m, there was a gap of more than 2 hours, 40 minutes in the warm air.
"It's the first time I've ever seen a Derby where dust and powder is flying up over the racetrack around the first turn," Romans said of the track conditions. "They didn't have it like the paved road they usually make it."
Added Wesley Ward, trainer of Preakness hopeful Pablo Del Monte, "Sometimes Churchill, it kind of looks like it's fast, but ... if there's not enough water on it kind of gets like a sandy beach, so I wouldn't really put too much (faith in the time)."
Those in California Chrome's camp maintain the biggest counter argument to the talk around his final time are the actions he has provided to back up his likely status as the heavy Preakness favorite.
Having opened up a 5-length advantage in the stretch, jockey Victor Espinoza had California Chrome geared down the final 70 yards and was already celebrating in the saddle before they crossed the Derby finish line.
Adding to the impressive nature of his win was the fact trainer Art Sherman says he's not even convinced his charge was ever fully comfortable on the Churchill Downs main track.
"You know, he likes the bouncy fast track. I thought that the track got a little slow at Churchill Downs with the two hours in between," Sherman said. "I know the (speed) figure guys get all bummed out about different things, but I never pay attention to that."
"If he takes to the track in Baltimore, you're going to see a different horse, too."
Much of California Chrome's competition, past and present, are in fact bracing for more of the same from him in the Preakness.
Romans declared, "We're going to have a big Belmont Stakes day because there will be a Triple Crown on the line," while trainer Tom Amoss, who is considering starting Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Ria Antonia in the Preakness, stated, "If California Chrome runs his race, I don't see anybody beating him."
Hindsight shows similar statements were uttered about Orb in the wake of his 21/2-length triumph in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Indeed, he touted himself brilliantly before finishing a shocking fourth behind upstart Oxbow in the Preakness.
"I think we say that every year, we all want it to happen," said trainer Graham Motion, who plans to enter Ring Weekend in this year's Preakness and saddled 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to a hard-luck second-place finish in his Preakness. "But it's just tough isn't it. And that's why we all want to take a shot in the Preakness."