Nations: Triple Crown no trivial matter

Trivia time — can you name the winner of the 2013 Preakness Stakes?

No, I won’t make you look at the end of the column and for the upside down answer … it was Oxbow.

Maybe that rings a bell, maybe not. More likely, Orb — fourth last year in the Preakness — is the horse whose name rings a bell. Orb, after all, won the first leg of horse racing’s coveted Triple Crown by besting a loaded field in the 139th Kentucky Derby.

It could be that you don’t remember Orb, either, or won’t for long. Heading into last year’s Preakness, only one horse — Orb — had a chance to do what only the truly legendary thoroughbreds have accomplished through the years. Up to 20 hopefuls load into the starting gates at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. Only one crosses the finish line first, and just like that the Triple Crown field narrows to one.

This year’s survivor is California Chrome — there’s a name you probably know, at least for now. The California-bred went into this year’s Kentucky Derby as the favorite, and left the Bluegrass State as an even more popular choice to win in Saturday’s Preakness.

That’s a built-in advantage for the Preakness — barring injury, the race is guaranteed to reap the benefits of a Triple Crown challenger as fans like up with hopes of seeing the next Affirmed or Seattle Slew. Maybe even the next Secretariat (keep dreaming).

The Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, must wait its turn and hope like the rest that California Chrome can prevail on Saturday. If so, the Belmont becomes must-see television for even casual sports fans. If not … who won the Belmont last year? Oh right, Palace Malice.

It’s been 36 years since jockey Steve Cauthen brought home Affirmed in the Belmont as the last Triple Crown winner, just a year after jockey Jean Cruguet and Seattle Slew pulled off the feat.

With every passing year, it seems, those names and others — Secretariat (1973), Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Count Fleet (1943), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937) the most recent among that select group — cement further as almost mythological figures, larger-than-life horses of a bygone day when such feats were possible.

Hope springs eternal in horse racing, of course, and all those hopes are on California Chrome now. The strapping colt certainly looks the part, but then so many others before him have as well.

California Chrome’s deceptively slow 1 ¾-length win in the Derby — 2:03.66 on a fast track — can be attributed in large part to jockey Victor Espinoza’s wise decision to pull up the winning colt at the sixteenth pole. California Chrome had opened up a five-length lead in the stretch before Espinoza dialed it down in the final 70 yards.

The win was the fifth straight for California Chrome, who remains two victories shy of horse racing immortality. Saturday at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, he has a chance to get one step closer.

It won’t be easy, it never is. The Kentucky Derby presents the challenge of a crowded track stacked with many contenders — front-running speed horses, stalkers, closers, all there to take a shot. The Preakness, the shortest of the three Triple Crown races, always attracts a handful of newcomers to challenge the Derby winner on a fast two-week turnaround. Bad breaks and bobbles are magnified in the Preakness, as speed so often wins the day.

Survive that, and perhaps the toughest test of all awaits in the Belmont. Remember jockey Kent Desormeaux pulling up Big Brown in 2008? How about Smarty Jones getting run down in the stretch by Birdstone in 2004? The Belmont’s history is littered with near-misses, as the distance — at 12 furlongs, the longest of the Triple Crown races — so often proves to be an entirely different sort of challenge.

That’s a worry that can wait for trainer Art Sherman and the rest of California Chrome’s connections. The challenge this week awaits in Baltimore, as California Chrome seeks to become the first-ever California-bred to win a Triple Crown. Rest assured, many have tried over the years.

Will California Chrome soon earn his place among horse racing’s immortals, or simply be another footnote in the growing list of failed Triple Crown hopefuls? Saturday’s Preakness can’t answer for immortality, but it can confirm failure. For the sport’s sake, here’s wishing California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid is alive and well on Sunday morning.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>