LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Art Sherman reached the barn at 5 a.m. Sunday, the day after the Kentucky Derby, he found his star pupil still slumbering.
“I didn’t want to wake him up,” he said of California Chrome, the newly garlanded champion of Churchill Downs. “I know he’d had a hard day.”
The 77-year-old trainer looked wide awake, walking crisply around Barn 20, though he professed to be “numb” to the previous day’s triumph. He said the enormity probably won’t hit him until he finds a few moments alone in his lounge chair, outside the family home in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.
Neither Sherman nor his horse will be allowed to relax for long. Such is the nature of the Triple Crown, which will have them headed to Pimlico Race Course next week in preparation for the Preakness on May 17.
Within minutes of California Chrome’s victory Saturday evening, speculation began that he might be the horse to achieve what no 3-year-old has since Affirmed in 1978.
His brash co-owner, Steve Coburn, didn’t hesitate to predict a Triple Crown, but Sherman didn’t make any similar statements Sunday.
”I don’t know,” Sherman said. “I just know that when we lead him over there, he’ll be the horse to beat. He don’t give up.”
Though he went off as a 5-2 favorite in the Derby, California Chrome was no sure thing to the trainers who saddled horses against him. They questioned his pedigree and how he’d run away from home.
The doubts vanished as they watched him execute a near-perfect race.
“He looked like a winner every step of the race,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who started Tapiture in the Derby. “You watch the replay, and everybody had trouble but him.”
Asmussen didn’t quite predict a Triple Crown, but he grinned as he said: “He’s definitely my pick for the Preakness.”
The Preakness field is already taking shape, with California Chrome likely to face several threats he did not encounter in Kentucky.
Social Inclusion won his first two races in blinding fashion after not running as a 2-year-old, but his third-place finish at the Wood Memorial left him short of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. His talent is tantalizing, his resume thin.
Social Inclusion scratched from a Saturday race at Florida’s Gulfstream Park because of a bruised right hoof, but he is still expected at Pimlico in less than two weeks.
Bayern, trained by Bob Baffert, is another intriguing possibility. He was considered a top Kentucky Derby contender until a poor showing in the Arkansas Derby on April 12.
Pablo Del Monte is pointed toward Baltimore after his connections turned down a Kentucky Derby spot opened by Hoppertunity’s injury. The Kentucky colt would have been a 50-1 morning-line long shot, and his owners did not relish the prospect of starting from the No. 20 post.
Ride on Curlin also is likely to run in the Preakness after a seventh-place finish at Churchill Downs. Other possibilities include Kid Cruz, winner of his last two stakes races in Maryland; Strong Mandate, trained by D. Wayne Lukas; and Dynamic Impact, winner of the Illinois Derby.
Among the horses considered 50-50 possibilities for the Preakness are trainer Dallas Stewart’s Commanding Curve, second in the Derby as a 38-1 long shot, and trainer Graham Motion’s Ring Weekend, who qualified for the Derby but never traveled to Kentucky from Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton because he ran a fever last weekend.
Several stars of Derby week are unlikely to appear at the Preakness.
Fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong probably won’t make the trip, said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. The colt was a popular favorite in Kentucky, with his Boston-based ownership group pledging 5 percent of his Triple Crown winnings to support victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Given her commanding win in the Kentucky Oaks, Untapable inspired speculation she might follow the same path as 2009 Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra.
But her trainer, Asmussen, put that talk to rest Sunday morning.
“We didn’t feel that it was in her best interest to run back in two weeks,” he said. “Her temperament is the biggest question there.”
Hoppertunity will not make the trip, either, after Baffert initially suggested he might. He was the second choice in the morning line at the Derby until Baffert scratched him because of a bruise to his left front foot.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s horses, including Derby third-place finisher Danza, were uncertain for the Preakness as of Sunday, said Maryland Jockey Club spokesman Mike Gathagan.
Regardless of his exact competition, California Chrome will face new challenges as he prepares for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
How will he bounce back with just two weeks rest? How will he respond to a long stay away from his California home base?