It's feeling like last year again

May, 5, 2014

It's all of the sudden starting to feel like last year again.

Two weeks from now we'll know if there's a sense of 1978 in the air.

Some 12 months ago at this time, there was a growing sensation that racing had something special on its hands in its latest Kentucky Derby winner, Orb.

Orb was a decisive winner of the Run for the Roses and it was his fifth straight victory, a streak that included a triumph in one of the major Derby preps, the Florida Derby.

To neatly wrap up all of that, Orb came into the Derby as the division leader and proved himself worthy of that mantle by winning as the betting favorite in the race.

And when a horse can meet those lofty expectations in the Derby, it's not unusual for grandiose expectations to appear on the scene.

You see, history says that if someone can sweep the Triple Crown, it's almost always a favorite or close second choice in the Derby. They are the quality horses that are dominant enough to hold up under the rigors of three grueling Triple Crown races.

When a long shot wins the Derby, such as Mine That Bird in 2009 and Giacomo in 2005, it's almost a foregone conclusion that they are not good enough to pull off consecutive wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes as well. Lightning doesn't strike three times. Maybe twice, as it did for Charismatic in 1999, but not three times.

In looking back at the 11 Triple Crown winners, seven were favored in the Derby. Three were the second choice and one of those was Affirmed.

Those numbers, plus the length of the Triple Crown drought, was enough to spark an inferno when Orb took the Derby. The logic was that if they couldn't beat him in the Derby, why would they beat him in the Preakness or Belmont Stakes?

By now, though, we know Orb never won another race, but it seems as if that sad realization will not slow the growing enthusiasm for California Chrome's Triple Crown chances.

Like Orb, he won decisively and it was his fifth straight win, including a win in the Santa Anita Derby. He was also the favorite.


To be honest, I'm not real comfortable with running him back in two weeks, but I know that's what we're bound to do.

" -- Trainer Art Sherman, California Chrome
He, like Orb, should be an odds-on choice at Pimlico in the Preakness. California Chrome, however, seems better suited than Orb for Pimlico because of his tactical speed.

Yet the Belmont Stakes, and then the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, showed that the track didn't trip up Orb. He simply ran out of gas after the Derby.

The same fate might await California Chrome. Trainer Art Sherman would prefer to give his horse two months of rest instead of the two weeks California Chrome will get for the Preakness, yet he understands that skipping the Preakness is a no-no. It's not like he's back in the 1980s, training Spend a Buck or Gato Del Sol.

"To be honest, I'm not real comfortable with running him back in two weeks," Sherman said Sunday, "but I know that's what we're bound to do. I don't normally run any kind of horse back in two weeks, not even lowly claimers. I'm more the kind of guy who likes to wait seven or eight weeks between races. These horses run hard and they need time to recover."

Given the time frame of three classic races in five weeks, California Chrome will have his work cut out for him in trying to end this miserable Triple Crown drought at 36 years.

Yet from what we've seen so far, he's certainly capable of it. At this point, it doesn't appear that there's a worthy rival for him. Though Commanding Curve was closest to him in the Derby, it seems unlikely that he can turn the tables on the Derby winner in a shorter race such as the Preakness.

If anything, it could be fatigue that catches up with California Chrome at some point.

But for now there's nothing wrong with a little déjà vu. Once again, like last year, a horse with a better than average résumé will take aim at a Triple Crown sweep, and there's a rightful sense of excitement that this could finally be the breakthrough year and the superstar horse.

At the very least, after 36 years, it's certainly long overdue to happen.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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