2019-09-15 12:08:00

One has to wonder whether the A-Team are lurking somewhere in the background, so triumphantly have California Chrome’s Triple Crown plans come together.

Thus far, at the very least.

California Chrome’s toughest challenge awaits him in New York, around the oxygen-devouring mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes in three weeks' time – the final hallowed leg of the Triple Crown. Not to mention the three weeks leading up to that race – a period that will leave with knuckles whiter than a base jumper’s as he treads a diamond-cut line between keeping his steed in the finest possible shape, and depleting any more of those already much-plundered reserves.

There is no doubt, however, that California Chrome and his quickly accumulated band of acolytes will be hoping for a repeat performance of at Pimlico.

Snappy out of the gates, California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza found a nice spot on the tails of the leading pair, Rio Antonia and Pablo Del Monte, who took the field along at a decidedly brisker pace than the more pedestrianly run . There they sat until the far turn, where Luis Contreras threw Social Inclusion into the fray with a move on the outside, picking up California Chrome in the process.

Together they swept around the bend and for a moment as brief as a sneeze, it looked as though the pair had the race between them. But California Chrome, under vigorous handling by Espinoza, once again stole the show with a trenchant turn of foot that has become his trademark. While it might not have been as electric as the one displayed at Churchill Downs two weeks prior – when the nearby electrical susbstations lit up like Vegas as he powered away from the field – it was still devastating enough for Social Inclusion and co to whither like petals in the Nevada desert.

The only horse to make it a semblance of a race for California Chrome was Ride on Curlin, who made relentless headway down the stretch to close the gap to one-and-a-half lengths at the wire. It was a laudable performance by Ride On Curlin, who was relegated to the back of the bus in second-last for the first half of the race. But while he demonstrated an A-plus attitude in dogged pursuit of California Chrome, one was left with the distinct impression that Espinoza wasn’t scraping the bottom of his mount’s emergency reserves, keeping what powder he could dry for the next battle, on 7 June.

So what new have we gleaned about California Chrome in the aftermath of the first two legs of the Triple Crown? Very little in the way of any hidden facets. As always, he has shown pace-aplenty at both ends of a race. He has proven himself an amenable customer, too, with Espinoza able to slot him pretty much wherever he wants in a race. And as we know from Churchill Downs, one mile and a quarter is well within the circumference of his stamina. But what about the mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes?

Moons ago, the Parthenon was the place to go to seek guidance from Athena – the goddess of just war. The same trust in unknowable entities will be harbored by many in the upcoming weeks as they seek to speculate upon California Chrome’s chances of staying the Belmont distance. The simple truth is that there is absolutely no way of predicting with any cast-iron accuracy his chances of seeing the trip out or not. But here’s hoping that the warrior goddess will be hovering near his side when the swords are drawn at the battle end of Belmont’s long home stretch.

Perhaps the only relatively new idea that we can pluck from the Preakness is that California Chrome is as smart as he is fast. One of the few chinks he had in his armour was his propensity to jiggle around in the gates like a key in a lock – a habit that would sometimes hamper his start, and with it his chances of winning. But at Pimlico as at Churchill Downs, he was impeccable out of the gates. Indeed, he stood stiller than a pillar of salt in the Preakness starting gates. In this particular facet of his performance, he’s showing that he both listens and learns. As with any athlete, animal or otherwise, brains and brawn are a formidable combination.

What a few exciting, tremulous weeks await as the countdown to the Belmont begins. But if there’s anything that history can teach us, it’s that the time between now, and the very instant when the clock is stopped on the Belmont Stakes, is a veritable no-mans-land of tattered Triple-Crown dreams.

Since 1978, when Affirmed last achieved the feat, 11 horses have won the first two legs of racing’s holy trinity, only to choke on the wine of the Blessed Sacrament. One has only to rewind the clock a couple of years to I’ll Have Another, who was withdrawn from the Belmont Stakes on the eve of the race with what proved an injury-ending career. Real Quiet was arguably the unluckiest of vanquished Triple Crown contenders. In the 1998 Belmont Stakes, Real Quiet, trained by Bob Baffert, was collared by Victory Gallop in the grim shadow of the wire – rarely have four small inches seemed such a chasm of disappointment.

Jockey Victor Espinoza isn’t new to the phenomenon of sitting on the brink of immortality. Nigh on 12 years ago, War Emblem, another of Bob Baffert’s young proteges, headed to New York one race away from avenging his erstwhile stablemate’s cruel loss. War Emblem, a Basil Fawlty sort with a temper that was tinder-dry to ignite, fell out of the gates before sulking to an ignominious eighth place finish.

Whereas Espinoza may have taken this road less travelled before, the same can’t be said for the other main players in the California Chrome story. Trainer Art Sherman, who at 77 years young is approaching curtain call on a long career – a career that, despite knuckling out years of solid successes, had only ever peered from afar at the glacial heights that it has scaled these glorious few months. Prior to this year’s race, Sherman had never before even visited Pimlico. Now, he’s poised on the cusp of standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the likes of Jim Fitzsimmons, Lucien Laurin and Max Hirsh – Triple Crown winning trainers whose names are indelibly woven into the Bayeaux Tapestry of moments that define racing’s storied past.

Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, celebrates after winning the 139th Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Photograph: Diane Bondareff/Invision for Longines

And what of owners and breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin – two men whose worn blue collars stand out against the starched crispness of racing’s privileged elite. Much has been written about Coburn and Martin’s —as well as the bargain basement price-tag that accompanied their champion—but those roots ground them with an earthly understanding of the true impact of their remarkable achievements.

As Coburn, a raspberry swirl of red face and white hat, jacket and moustache, brandished the winning trophy, only the most leaden of hearts would have failed to have been moved as the sheer euphoria and happiness of the occasion cloyed in his throat, rendering him all but speechless for what I’d hesitate to guess is the first time in his life. The moment clearly meant the world to him, and unlike some who have stood in the same spot, Coburn dearly wants each and every one of us to share in his joy.

But let’s not forget, California Chrome et al have three agonizing, frustrating and excruciating weeks to go before they once again face headlong the crucible of the next and final battle. So much can go wrong before then, and nothing epitomizes the fragility of nature more then the racehorse. But America’s latest working class hero has the right team behind him.

If the A-Team’s Hannibal loves nothing better than a plan that comes together, then the American public loves even more a plucky proletarian upstart scaling the heights reserved for only a rare and exceptional few.