Sunday, May 18, 2014

California Dreamin’: Safe and Warm in Baltimore

SARATOGA SPRINGS, May 17, 2014--For horse racing fans and bettors, dreamers one and all, it doesn’t get any better than what happened Saturday at America’s second oldest racetrack.

California Chrome was second to none.

In the Derby, there were more than a few skeptics but California Chrome proved to be the best horse, flashing that push-button acceleration of his, making the doubters look like a bunch of dumb asses.

And, of course, because of the serendipitous nature of dreams, literal and figurative, he became America’s Horse, winning the Derby for the 99 percenters.

On the third Saturday in May at “Old Hilltop,” the story got even larger. By Saturday night the Chromies were beside themselves, having to scrunch over to make way for a gang of band-wagon fans.

He got his job done, on two weeks rest and in racehorse time. What will happen on Long Island three weeks hence is for another day—on other days and for weeks to come.

But this time there was no told-you-so from the highly visible partner-breeder and 99 percenter Steve Coburn. There was only gratitude, humility and tears of joy, thanking everyone within hailing distance.

How many people have ever stood on a cupola at a Triple Crown track thanking their grooms after a race?

Sometimes it sounds a little trite when the TV guys say it but horse racing is the most democratic of all sports.

A decade ago, it was a fun bunch of high school pals with a horse born virtually in their backyards in upstate New York. Now it’s the Left Coast’s turn for two guys who had $10,000 and a dream.

As for the whole Triple Crown enchilada, there will be plenty of time, plenty of workouts, plenty of rumors—all of it to ponder.

But first, an over-the-shoulder look back at Preakness 139, in the order they went to the post:

1-Dynamic Impact was a gutty, tenacious winner of the Illinois Derby but made no impression whatsoever in the Preakness, the very brief flurry approaching the far turn notwithstanding.

2-General A Rod If you analyze the trips of Derby-Preakness horses not named California Chrome, General A Rod was far unluckier than Ride On Curlin. Javier Castellano engineered perfect position, steering ‘A Rod’ off the rail, at the ready to go after the favorite when it was time. But time stood still when the recklessly managed filly Ria Antonia stopped in his face soon after curling into the far turn--and continued her stopping all the way round the bend. Entering headstretch, ‘A Rod’ was inside with no chance to win. Angled out by Castellano at the three-sixteenths pole, he finished with a flourish after altering course again, only slightly, to the inside of a drifting Ring Weekend. Still, he almost ran down Social Inclusion for third. Ring Weekend had five lengths on A Rod at headstretch but A Rod was 4-1/4 ahead of him at the wire.

3-California Chrome is a remarkable racehorse. If he was tiring at the end of 1-3/16s miles, his action belied that fact. He stayed in rhythm beneath a “perfect” Victor Espinoza, his stick down in the last 40 yards. His course never wavered through the stretch as fatigued or lesser horses would. He makes his own perfect trip every time he runs. Victor’s brother, Jose, for years one of the most under-appreciated riders in New York and told he could never ride again, did a pretty good job getting his brother home Saturday. Here’s hoping miracles happen. This is the California Chrome saga we’re talking about here, so nothing's impossible.

4-Ring Weekend completed a big two weeks for the West Pointers, first Commanding Curve, now this guy, who likely got very little out of his Calder Derby placing, then caught a cold, then made a very representative run in the Triple Crown’s second leg. Coming out at the start and exchanging bumps that virtually eliminated Bayern, he made a nice run up the fence down the backside and on the turn in the spot vacated by ‘A Rod’ and continued running well into the lane, but tired in mid-stretch. It was a damn good try for a horse that had missed some training.

5-Bayern was eliminated at the break. He’s not the type, even if 1-3/16 miles were within his scope, which is suspect. to overcome that kind of buffeting about at the start of a race.

6-Ria Antonia was the subject of a rumor back at the stakes barn after the race that the filly was looking for a new owner. Unfortunately we were unable to confirm the report before posting this column.

7-Kid Cruz was never involved, racing as if he were empty all the way.

8-Social Inclusion washed out badly, as he is prone to do, was obstreperous in the gate, but was the only entrant to actually bring the race to California Comet, Luis Contreras did the only thing he could if he hoped to upset the Preakness. Once again this inexperienced colt acquitted himself very well. It was heartening to see that loyalty is rewarded, albeit to a lesser degree, twice in the same race.

9-Pablo Del Monte was a worthy pace presence but he surely is going to miss the Keeneland Polytrack.

10-Ride On Curlin was perfectly ridden behind a solid, but not especially enervating, pace and gave his all in an excellent run. Everyone in his camp wanted a clear shot at a brass ring and Joel Rosario gave that to the colt and his connections. He ran on very well for second but, from what we could see, the best horse would not let him by even on the gallop-out.

While we’re on this subject, we think that NBCSports is having a good Triple Crown season. But, please, can we stay on the horses just a tad longer before we go to the hero/reaction shots?

I fully realize the network is playing to a different audience, and I’m romantic enough to enjoy all the featured human storylines. That is what makes the sporting aspect of horse racing unique.

But cutting away from the horses too soon after the finish does all viewers a disservice. The aerial shot had the view, but that even was needlessly truncated.

Written by John Pricci

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