BALTIMORE, Md. — For a man who is about to do something he says worries him with a horse under the hottest of spotlights, trainer Art Sherman carried a peaceful air of confidence Friday morning.
The 77-year-old Sherman is not used to running a horse after only two weeks of rest. Experience tells him it takes "about 10 days" for a horse to fully bounce out of a race.
However, when you condition the Kentucky Derby winner, bypassing the second leg of the Triple Crown 14 days later just isn't a popular option barring ailment or injury.
And since nothing California Chrome has done the last six months remotely resembles an ordinary horse, Sherman is taking a cue from his charge and outwardly handling the challenges of the moment with ease.
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"I'm not worried (about the other contenders)," Sherman said during a rain-drenched morning at Pimlico Race Course on Friday. "I think they have to worry about me to be honest."
There are circumstances that could take down Kentucky Derby hero California Chrome in Saturday's 139th Preakness Stakes: a lousy break out of post-position No. 3, a suicidal pace he hooks into, or a set of legs simply better than his.
Many of California Chrome's nine challengers in the 13⁄16-mile classic concur that if the horse who has won five straight races by a combined 26 lengths since December shows his normal self, even their horses' best day might only be good enough for second place.
"I'm confident in my horse. I think he's a really talented horse. I just think that California Chrome could be a special horse," said Norman Casse, assistant to his father Mark Casse, who will saddle Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact. "I think there would have to be a pace scenario where he gets burned out early and we'd be sitting there to pick up the pieces. That's how you beat him.
"We're not necessarily going to be scared off by Chrome but we're realistic too that ... if he gets things his way, he's going to be tough to beat."
No horse has gotten to the wire in front of California Chrome since he kicked off his current win streak with a 61/4-length victory in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park last Dec. 22. While many horses have flashes of ability, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred has a smoothness and tractability that makes him a threat in almost any race scenario.
His chestnut frame has enough speed to set the pace on the front end, as he did during his gate-to-wire win in the Grade II San Felipe in March, but is kind enough to rate just behind leaders, effortlessly switch leads and then kick away without jockey Victor Espinoza having to do much urging.
"Victor, he said he's never went to the bottom of this horse. And when you say bottom, that means driving with the whip," Sherman said. "If you can rate a speed horse, you got a big, big advantage."
Though his preparations for the Preakness have gone off without problems, California Chrome's connections dealt with the scrutiny that comes with a high-quality horse as it was revealed Thursday the colt has a small blister in his throat.
Alan Sherman, assistant to his father, reiterated Friday that the horse was fine and the tiny ulcer a non-issue. Alan Sherman also clarified that California Chrome was not scoped and did not have blood drawn since arriving in Baltimore, saying those were performed while he was still in Louisville.
"I took his blood right after he ran in the Derby. He's got just the smallest little ulcer on his (palate)," Alan Sherman said. "He was scoped after the Derby and that (is when it was first detected)."
Ride On Curlin and General a Rod, seventh and 11th in the Kentucky Derby, respectively, are the only contenders from May 3 to come back along with California Chrome for the Preakness. History shows the form of Derby runners holds in the two-week turnaround as only six horses since 1980 have won the Preakness without running in the Derby, one of those being champion filly Rachel Alexandra who captured the Kentucky Oaks two weeks before in 2009.
The connections of lightly raced Social Inclusion have been most vocal about their chances for their colt to be a new shooter who prevails, citing the fact the son of Pioneerof the Nile has superior speed figures to California Chrome.
Bayern, third-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby, figures to be pushing the early fractions as well while Kid Cruz is the only Preakness entrant with a victory over the track, having won the Federico Tesio Stakes on April 19 by 31/2 lengths.
"(California Chrome) is really going to be tough. But how many horses ... have we given our garlands to before they've run here," said Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, owner of Preakness entrant and Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend. "When (2000 Kentucky Derby winner) Fusaichi Pegasus came here, you thought, 'How could you beat him coming off his Derby win?'
"I don't think anybody would be shocked if California Chrome gets to the half-mile pole and all of a sudden the whole composition of the race changes."
There is no hiding in a 10-horse field and the silks of the Derby winner will be the juiciest target Saturday.
In a perfect world, Art Sherman would have more time to prepare his horse. In reality, he has never conditioned one more ready for what is ahead.
"My horse, I think, will run his race and if they outrun me, they outrun me," Sherman said. "But they better have their running shoes on."