BALTIMORE – The stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course is a one-stall, one-star staging area this week.
It is California Chrome in stall 40, the traditional residence of the Kentucky Derby winner. And it is everyone else, going about their equine business in obscurity leading up to the Preakness Saturday.
All eyes are trained on 3-5 favorite Chrome and his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman. The crowd around Sherman has necessitated a semi-formal morning press conference, a departure from the customary casual interactions between media and trainers. When Art talks, reporters flock.
That's largely because the modestly bred horse on a dazzling five-race winning streak is a great story. And because his human connections are an even better story. But it's also because the rest of the assemblage brings to these proceedings less buzz than a dying bumblebee.
The Kentucky Derby field annually contains the best and brightest 3-year-old colts in the land – along with a few overmatched dreamers. Besides California Chrome, only two other Derby horses are entered in the Preakness: Ride On Curlin (seventh in Louisville) and General a Rod (11th). Everyone else from the Derby bailed out on a $1.5 million race that is the second leg of the Triple Crown.
California Chrome has won three graded stakes races in a row, by a combined 14¼ lengths. The other nine horses in the field have combined to win two graded stakes races – Dynamic Impact in the Illinois Derby last month and Ring Weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby in early March. Winners of major 3-year-old spring races like the Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Florida Derby are all sitting this one out.
"There's no bona fide stake horses in there," Sherman said last week, more a statement of fact than any kind of trash talk. "You've got to prove yourself."
This is not a Who's Who of horse racing. It's a Who's That.
The bleakness of this Preakness field emphasizes a fundamental flaw in thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. It is run on an outdated calendar. The turnaround from the first Saturday in May to the third Saturday in May is not something most thoroughbred owners and trainers are interested in trying.
Almost nobody races their horses on two weeks' rest anymore, which is the time between the Derby and this race. The only horse in this year's Preakness field to have run on a two-week layoff is Bayern, who contested the Arkansas Derby April 12 and then came back to run in the Derby Trial April 26 to open Churchill Downs' spring meet. Trainer Bob Baffert is so excited about Bayern's chances that he hadn't even shown up at Pimlico as of Thursday morning, letting an assistant handle pre-race prep.
Baffert is the No. 2 trainer in the nation in terms of purse money won in 2014. The top trainer, this year and most years, is Todd Pletcher. He brought four horses to the Kentucky Derby but zero to the Preakness, skipping it for the third year in a row.
Instead Pletcher will plot a potential ambush of California Chrome with fresher horses at the Belmont Stakes June 7. That's not overly fair or sporting, but that's horse racing.
California Chrome has had at least 28 days between all 10 of his career starts. The only reason he's running in the Preakness is because he won the Derby, and you can't win the Triple Crown without winning the second leg.
"I would love to see at least three [weeks between the Derby and Preakness]," Sherman said. "It takes a horse about 11 days to completely recover out of a race. … It's pushing the envelope a little bit [to run again in 14]. … But here I am trying it, so I'm hoping the racing gods are looking down on me."
On paper, it would take some ungodly bad luck for California Chrome not to win this race. He will probably have to beat himself.
There would seem to be only three scenarios in which Chrome loses the Preakness:
• A terrible break from the starting gate.
The colt tends to be restless in the gate, which has led to a few awkward breaks during his career. Assistant trainer Alan Sherman, Art's son, said California Chrome's front feet were spread a bit wide when the gate opened in the Kentucky Derby, but jockey Victor Espinoza still got him away in good order.
The colt likes to be forwardly placed in a race as opposed to coming from far back, so being left at the gate would not be an ideal way to start the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. The Shermans are schooling California Chrome in the starting gate at Pimlico this week to make him feel at ease come Saturday.
"I'll put it in Victor's ear before the race," Alan Sherman said. "Make sure his feet are square."
And if they're not?
"I don't know if you'd say it doesn't matter," Alan said. "But he can overcome it."
• A murderous pace that California Chrome cannot lay off of.
This figures to be a speedier race in the early going than the Derby, which was run at a deliberate 1 minute, 11⅘ seconds to the halfway point. If Bayern, Social Inclusion and Pablo Del Monte set a wicked pace and Chrome is pulled into it, there is a chance he won't have enough left in the stretch to finish strong. Espinoza will need to relax his horse behind the leaders – which he's done ably in his last two races.
"If he can come out of there and be fourth around the turn and fourth on the backside," Art Sherman said, "you're going to see old Chrome perform."
• A physical problem.
The Shermans confirmed that California Chrome coughed a few times Thursday morning, leading to the customary rampant barn speculation about the favorite's health. Alan Sherman said the colt has a throat blister that is being treated, but that he had the same thing before running away with the Kentucky Derby.
"The horse is completely fine," Alan told the Pimlico media relations staff. "His blood work came back perfect. He coughed about four times today and we got him checked out right away. The blister isn't going to affect him at all; the vet said there were absolutely no other problems, nothing else going on."
California Chrome looked like a happy camper after going to the track Thursday morning, playfully biting at the leather shank in Alan's hands as groom Raul Rodriguez bathed him and put talcum powder on his white feet. If there is something wrong with him, you couldn't tell it at that moment.
But the Preakness scrutiny is always sharpest on the Derby winner. Especially when the rest of the field is this uninspiring.