BALTIMORE – The atmosphere at the Pimlico Race Course stakes barn before the Preakness Stakes was crazy calm. It was a combination of laugh track and laid-back.
Less than an hour before his Kentucky Derby champion colt California Chrome was saddled for the second leg of the Triple Crown, 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman was telling hilarious stories from his riding days. About riding races with pebbles in his mouth and spitting them out as the race went along, so he'd gradually feel lighter to the horse he was riding. About being marooned by bad weather at old Bowie Race Track in Maryland one winter, and winning $700 playing poker with other jockeys. About wearing women's leotards and wrapping his feet in cellophane to endure the cold of those winter races.
Co-owner Steve Coburn, in his trademark purple shirt, green tie, cowboy hat and western jacket, was hugging everyone. John Hafler, a firefighter in Anne Arundel County who had spent the past few days driving Coburn and his wife around, received a particularly warm embrace.
After a while, Coburn sidled over to Sherman and clasped his hand.
"All right, Arthur," Coburn said in a stage voice, with his customary flair for the dramatic, "we're going to do this. We're going to win the Triple Crown."
But first, they had to win this race, the Preakness.
And for once, it wasn't going to be easy.
The competition tried to make it hard on California Chrome.
He was pressured early in the Preakness, forced into a sprint by looming Social Inclusion with half mile still to go. He was challenged late by a hard-closing Ride On Curlin. He didn't have his way with this race the way he did two weeks ago at the Derby, and in all those races in California.
And it didn't matter.
California Chrome brought it home yet again, using his dazzling burst of acceleration to create separation on the field at the top of the stretch and rolling to yet another stirring victory. The incredible story – the best one in sports right now – keeps going, keeps getting better: the cheaply bred horse with the humble pedigree; the old trainer with the small-time background; the working-class owners who turned down a $6 million offer for their horse in order to keep their team intact and chase this improbable dream on their terms.
Coburn put it this way: "This horse, what he's doing for two guys that work their butts off to put beans and bacon on the table, this horse has given everyone out there incentive to say, 'You know what? We can do it, too.' … It may not be a horse race. It may be the idea that they have in their head or a new product or whatever the case may be, but we just hope that this horse is letting Americans know that the little guy can win."
The little guys keep winning, reeling in the American public with every victory. This was Chrome's sixth straight victory, and his second leg of the Triple Crown. He will chase immortality three weeks hence at the Belmont in New York, trying to end a 36-year drought in Triple Crown winners – the longest in thoroughbred racing history.
[Slideshow: California Chrome wins the Preakness Stakes]
"I know right now we're running on a high," Sherman said. "But I think when we get to Belmont this horse is going to run big. I really do."
Chrome figures to be a heavy betting favorite, but the odds are frankly against him. Since Affirmed last took the Triple in 1978, a dozen horses have won the first two legs before failing to complete the quest. It has become the biggest tease in sports, a game that's rigged against the Derby and Preakness winner.
But regardless what happens in New York, California Chrome has proven himself in recent weeks to be an excellent horse.
At the stakes barn before the race, Sherman said he hoped to see jockey Victor Espinoza settle California Chrome behind the pace setters on the backstretch, holding a handful of horse and ready to fire. That's exactly the way it played out – but it wasn't quite that simple. Espinoza had some challenges along the way.
"It was tough today," Espinoza said. "This race was just a little complicated."
The complications came early. California Chrome broke alertly from the No. 3 post but veered out to his right within a few strides. Then Ria Antonia – a filly who was stupidly entered in this race with no chance to win – came circling from the outside in front of Chrome and along with Pablo Del Monte grabbed the lead heading into the first turn. Espinoza got Chrome to settle in behind those two.
"In a tenth of a second I had to make that decision," Espinoza said. "… So I sit third, and I thought it was perfect. As so as I think that, in a half mile, here comes the other one. They attacked me too soon."
That was Social Inclusion, looming up outside of California Chrome and forcing the issue. There would be no patient wait to pounce coming off the far turn this time; Chrome had to run right then and there.
As they surged toward the lead, Ride On Curlin made a big move to join the battle at the top of the stretch. After a ruinous trip in the Derby, he was perfectly positioned to take the race in the stretch.
But that was where California Chrome switched leads – going from a left-foot lead to his right foot – and buried everyone. He opened three lengths, then cruised in a length-and-a-half in front of Ride On Curlin in 1 minute, 54.84 seconds – fastest winning time in this race since Big Brown in 2008.
"[California Chrome] is something," said five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert. "… He has so much acceleration."
Last week Sherman referred to that burst of speed as a move that "staggers" horses. That ability to instantly draw off is what makes California Chrome special.
"His right lead is like a Mike Tyson left hook," said one Pimilco veteran.
Whether Chrome can retain that knockout punch for another race in just three weeks time, facing a grueling 1½-mile run against fresher horses, remains to be seen. But this isn't the time to forecast how that will play out. It is time to appreciate an animal that has been unflappable and unbeatable at age 3, and the ordinary people who are along for the ride.
The 61-year-old Coburn, an Army vet who works at JCP Enterprises in Gardnerville, Nev., operates a press that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and driver licenses. Before the Derby he disparaged the unnamed buyer who made the $6 million offer for California Chrome, saying, "This guy who made us this offer, he has people wash his feet for him. … [The offer] came from somebody who never even put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning. It was kind of an insult to me."
But Coburn softened that Saturday, after he met that prospective buyer at Pimlico.
"He shook my hand and said, 'I respect what you did,' " Coburn relayed.
The gamble of keeping California Chrome has paid off for Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin, who wryly named their ownership Dumb Ass Partners. Their horse figures to be worth far more than $6 million now – and if he wins again in three weeks, his value skyrockets again.
The little guys keep winning. The best story in sports keeps getting better.