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Triple Crown bid taxing for Derby winner

There was no doubt that California Chrome, as a 5-2 odds favorite, was the people’s choice to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs.

He did so for popular connections in jockey Victor Espinoza, trainer Art Sherman and owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin.

Now the question being asked of every Derby winner: Is California Chrome good enough to win horse racing’s Triple Crown? The sport has not had a Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.

California Chrome is talented enough, but there are good reasons why 36 years have passed since Affirmed.

Winning the three legs of the Triple Crown in five weeks is incredibly taxing on the modern day thoroughbred. This after a grueling prep race campaign.

The Derby winner typically faces a full field of fresh horses in the Preakness and Belmont. The possibility that one of the contenders will run a career-best race — and spring an upset — is strong.

The task of running a winning race on three different dirt surfaces (Churchill, Pimlico, Belmont Park) is almost always overlooked. One can argue that dirt is dirt, but it’s not that simple.

The first obstacle for California Chrome is, of course, winning the Preakness on May 17. With what transpired Saturday at Churchill, he will be a short price to do so.

Also, the prospective Preakness field speaks volumes. Only one Derby foe, Ride On Curlin, is likely for Baltimore. The rest are new shooters.

The Preakness field usually consists of a third of the Derby horses. This tells me a few things — that either the Derby field was below par, that California Chrome was that good, or maybe a bit of both.

Regardless, the stronger challengers are normally the Derby horses and not the new shooters.

The Derby race shape was revealing, too. The past two Derby winners — I’ll Have Another and Orb — had great setups rallying into fast 45 and change first half miles. California Chrome was able to relax off a relatively slow 47 1/5 pace to win.

It showcased two positive angles. California Chrome has push-button speed to accelerate when asked by Espinoza. Also, the horse does not need the early lead to win, which makes him comfortable in any kind of pace scenario.

Credit Espinoza, who did something only cool hands in the saddle can get away with. California Chrome had a five-length lead at the eighth pole, yet won by less than two lengths.

Watch the replay. California Chrome did not tire late. Espinoza clearly eases up before the wire, saving as much horse as possible. No need to win by 10 lengths when two lengths will do.

Combine this with Sherman’s plan to not work his horse between the Derby and the Preakness. Just long gallops. He wants a fresh horse for the Preakness and as much gas left in the tank for the Belmont as he can conserve.

A Preakness win by California Chrome would set up an exciting rematch with his main Derby foes — Commanding Curve, Danza, Wicked Strong and Samraat — with the Triple Crown at stake in the Belmont.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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