When the starting gate opened in the Preakness on May 17, California Chrome busted out like a boss.
He broke sharply and within a few strides veered out to the right, shutting off several horses and giving himself ample room – as if he owned Pimlico Race Course and wanted everyone to know it.
After settling into cruising speed, he simply bullied the colt most thought was his primary competition, Social Inclusion – not once but twice. When Social Inclusion ran up on the outside of California Chrome in the opening stretch and again going into the first turn, threatening to shut him off in traffic, Chrome moved him farther wide and created his own running space. This was almost an equine Mike Tyson move, intimidating his rivals.
"He bulled his way to position," marveled Steve Roman, a pedigree expert who has served as a breeding and racing adviser to the thoroughbred industry for decades. "He's fearless."
California Chrome has many admirable attributes. His natural speed is impressive. His acceleration is dazzling to watch and demoralizing to those trying to defeat him. His stamina has turned doubters into believers.
But the colt who will try to win the Triple Crown on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, where he'll break from the No. 2 post, also has a beautiful mind. He responds fluidly to jockey Victor Espinoza's commands, yet fiercely to any challengers who try to run past him.
"I love this horse," Roman said. "What I love about him most is his maturity, his demeanor, his tractability. I have not seen this kind of push-button horse at this level in a long, long time.
"I like this horse more than any North American runner I've seen since Ghostzapper (the 2004 Horse of the Year and Breeders Cup Classic winner). He's a man, and I think he's going to get better."
There are countless ways to handicap horse races, but a guy named Kerry Thomas approaches that task from a different perspective. He's a horse behaviorist, studying how thoroughbreds move within a herd and respond to the competitors around them. Thomas, who has earned the nickname the "Herd Whisperer," co-produces an annual analytical preview of the Kentucky Derby field called the "Thomas Herding Technique: Patterns of Motion Analysis."
In 2011, Thomas touted Animal Kingdom for his superior herd dynamics – and the horse won at 20-1 odds. The next year he was high on I'll Have Another, who won the Derby at 15-1. Last year he picked the winner again in Orb.
This spring, Thomas gave his top marks to Danza, who would finish third. But California Chrome got his second billing, being labeled as the most powerful "individual herd dynamic" horse in the Derby field.
Thomas characterizes individual herd dynamic as basically the competitive will to beat the animal next to you. It is "the authority and the hammer," in Thomas' words.
Part of Thomas' pre-Derby profile of California Chrome:
"California Chrome is a horse at the apex of his development. He has learned his game and honed his tactics. He is much farther down the road in the development of his pattern of motion than most three-year-olds at this time of year. … He likes to run, and as a high-level horse, he is not herd dependent. California Chrome enters the Derby an extremely confident horse. Time in motion up to nine furlongs did not wear California Chrome down. He has the emotional conformation to handle the Derby distance, but the ride could be very important. This is a luxury sports car that needs proper steering."
This is where Espinoza deserves credit. Thomas' one warning sign with California Chrome was that he did not have a strong Group Herd Dynamic and could be thrown off his game in a crowded setting. But at no point in the 19-horse Derby or 12-horse Preakness has Espinoza gotten California Chrome into an uncomfortable position, where he was boxed in and couldn't run freely.
"The horse really had two perfect trips," said Dallas Stewart, trainer of Derby runner-up and Belmont entrant Commanding Curve. "I mean, just beautiful. We dream about having those types of trips in big racing events."
Perfect trips in big fields take some skillful riding. But it also takes a horse who responds well to directions and can be relaxed into a less-than-all-out pace.
It is uncommon to have a horse with California's Chrome's natural speed also be a "push-button" horse, to use the common vernacular. In both the Derby and the Preakness, Espinoza was able to get Chrome to relax behind the leaders for most of the race, never having to fight to keep him from sprinting past them until urged to do so.
"He is a pretty amazing animal," trainer Bob Baffert said after the Preakness. "It's like Victor has so much confidence in him – he just lets him out a little notch to get him in the right spot, then he gets him back and he's waiting. … Nothing seems to faze him."
But after romping to six straight victories, California Chrome, a 3-5 favorite in early odds, can expect to be gameplanned against by quality rivals Saturday. The effort will be made to take him out of the comfort zone he enjoyed in Louisville and Baltimore.
"I think some other jockeys have maybe been a little kind to him and allowed him to fit into those spots, when there were some opportunities to maybe close the door on him," said two-time Belmont-winning trainer Todd Pletcher.
While most people in racing would love to see the 36-year Triple Crown drought end, those contesting the race Saturday will be doing whatever they can to beat the favorite. Which calls to mind another Triple Crown bid, in 2004.
Smarty Jones, one of the most popular horses ever, was the heavy favorite and brought a huge crowd to Belmont Park. But the speed-favoring colt never could relax during the marathon 1½-mile race, being pressed along the backstretch by Rock Hard Ten on the inside and Eddington on the outside. Many people, including Smarty Jones owner Ray Chapman, accused Eddington jockey Jerry Bailey and Rock Hard Ten jockey Alex Solis of ganging up on Smarty and dooming him to defeat.
A more plausible explanation for Smarty Jones' heartbreaking defeat in the final strides is that jockey Stewart Elliott moved the colt too soon heading into the sweeping, endless final turn. But riding to unsettle a speed horse is hardly unheard of, and it's one of the tactics California Chrome could face.
"He's going to have a target on his back," Chrome trainer Art Sherman said. "I'm sure everybody knows that they can't let him have everything his own way or else you can't beat him."
But Roman, for one, believes California Chrome's beautiful mind will be difficult to melt down. The horse he has watched dominate 2014 doesn't look vulnerable to any head games.
"If he runs his race and Espinoza doesn't fall off," Roman said, "I think he's going to win the Triple Crown."
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