Throughout the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome’s co-owner predicted victory to anyone who’d listen, saying he felt it from his gut and his heart.
Coburn, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, sang the same confident tune Wednesday after his champion drew the No. 3 post position for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. His strong belief was echoed in the morning line set by Pimlico handicapper Keith Feustle, which has California Chrome as a massive 3-5 favorite.
“I’m great with No. 3,” Coburn said after the evening draw, held on the infield at Pimlico Race Course. “If he holds his position, I think we got this pretty well sewed up here. … It is a dream coming true. I knew this horse would win the Kentucky Derby. And I’ve got a strong feeling he’s going to win the Preakness. I’ve got something within me that I feel, and I can’t explain it.”
California Chrome’s charmed existence continued with a draw that will put him near the middle of a 10-horse field as he continues his quest to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
An unlucky draw can be an impediment to the strongest of favorites, as Orb learned last year when he went off as a 3-5 choice from the No. 1 post but couldn’t fight his way off the rail in time to catch Oxbow.
An awed gasp swept through the crowd at the draw when California Chrome was announced as such a massive favorite.
“Oh boy, 3-5, it makes you want to choke,” said his trainer, Art Sherman. “But I wouldn’t want to be in anybody else’s position. Hey listen, when you can be the 3-5 favorite in the Preakness, you must have deserved to be that.”
Sherman describes himself as more of a pragmatist than Coburn. He downplayed talk of his horse sweeping through the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
“Oh man, I think about the Triple Crown, but I’m a race-by-race kind of guy,” said the 77-year-old Sherman, who has never trained a horse on this kind of stage. “Let’s get over with the Preakness.”
With California Chrome so preeminent, the nine other entrants have felt like afterthoughts at times this week. But Social Inclusion, the 5-1 second choice in the morning line, is a new threat — the rare 3-year-old who has run as fast as a peak California Chrome.
Owner Ron Sanchez was initially concerned with Social Inclusion’s No. 8 post draw. His mood brightened when he saw slower starters Kid Cruz and Ria Antonia inside of his horse. He came away predicting a clean break to the lead for his speedy challenger.
“We’re going to be in a good position in the early stage,” he said. “I think we have a nice spot.”
Sanchez praised California Chrome but said the favorite will have to run harder in the early stages of the Preakness than he did in the slow-paced Kentucky Derby. “I’m never afraid of nothing,” he added.
Many expect Saturday’s race to be ruled by early speed. Beyond Social Inclusion, Bob Baffert-trained Bayern and late Derby scratch Pablo Del Monte like to set an aggressive early pace. Bayern will start from the No. 5 post as a 10-1 third choice in the morning line. Pablo Del Monte will start from the No. 9 post at 20-1 odds.
If the speed horses jump out quickly, which didn’t happen at Churchill Downs, California Chrome’s reaction could determine his fate. Recent history suggests he is a solid bet in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. Eight of the past 17 Derby champions have also won at Pimlico.
Sherman welcomes the early speed. “I’m really OK with it,” he said. “My horse is kind of push-button. He can stay with any horse in the race. He likes a target on his back, and I know that Victor [Espinoza] will ride him well.”
He seemed unsure what to make of Social Inclusion, given the gifted challenger’s light, three-race resume.
“I watched him run,” Sherman said. “He acts like a runner, but I just don’t know where to put him, how to put him in a category. I know he runs fast, but does he have that much ability when somebody’s got the same ability?”
Only two other challengers from the Kentucky Derby, Ride on Curlin and General a Rod, are taking another shot at California Chrome in Baltimore. Ride on Curlin drew the No. 10 post and is a 10-1 third choice in the morning line. General a Rod will start from the No. 2 post as a 15-1 choice in the morning line.
Ride on Curlin also drew an outside post in the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Billy Gowan said it was a bigger problem in a 19-horse field. “I think it’s less of a big deal,” he said. “We’re already eight horses in from where we started in Kentucky. There’s a bunch of speed, so we’ll just lay off the pace and have a target to shoot for in the end.”