By Steve Ginsburg
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - California Chrome has won all four of his races this year in dominating fashion and strolls into Saturday's Preakness Stakes as an overwhelming 3-5 favorite amid an adoring public hungry for a Triple Crown opportunity.
The Kentucky Derby champion appears to be a safe bet to win the 10-horse race that his closest challengers, odds-wise, are Social Inclusion at 5-1 and Ride On Curlin and Bayern at 10-1.
Not so fast, says 51-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who pulled off an upset in last year's Preakness, winning aboard Oxbow in a jaw-dropping wire-to-wire effort.
While he acknowledges that California Chrome is the deserving favorite, he said the seven horses in Saturday's race that skipped the Kentucky Derby are fresh. And, he said, it's not always the best horse that wins.
"The Derby winner has a target on his back," Stevens told Reuters via telephone from his home in Sierra Madre, California. "Everybody's going to be looking for him if he gets away from the gate slow.
"They're all going to try to block him in. It's not illegal. If I get position on somebody going into the turn I hold that position. I'm not giving you a shot. That's what we get paid to do."
Blocking California Chrome might be easier said than done. Trained by Art Sherman, the 3-year-old chestnut won the Derby by 1 3/4 lengths but, as Stevens said, "could have won by seven" if jockey Victor Espinoza didn't cruise across the wire.
Before the Derby, the modestly bred colt won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last month by 5 1/4 lengths and the Grade II San Felipe Stakes in March by 7 1/4 lengths.
Social Inclusion, his closest challenger on the tote board, has raced only three times in his career and faded to third in the Wood Memorial last month.
Ride On Curlin finished seventh in the Derby and Bayern, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, finished second last time out in the Derby Trial after winning but being dropped down after the colt made contact with Embellishing Bob in the final furlong.
Bayern, who will break from the enviable five post but has never gone the 1 3/16-mile (1900 meters) Preakness distance, has two wins, a second and a third in four career starts.
"I'm really excited to ride this horse around two turns," Napravnik, looking to become the first woman to win the Preakness, said in a telephone interview from Churchill Downs. "Hopefully, we'll get a good trip.
"The Preakness is definitely more wide open than having a 3-5 favorite. I really, really like this horse. I don't think anybody's seen his best yet."
Also in the field is Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact (12-1 odds) and General a Rod (15-1), who endured a rough trip and finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby under Joel Rosario. On Saturday, Rosario will be aboard Ride On Curlin, while Javier Castellano takes the reins on General a Rod.
On current form, California Chrome looks like an easy winner but widely praised Kentucky Derby champion Orb finished out of the Preakness money in fourth a year ago.
Chrome's trainer, the 77-year-old Sherman, said his California-bred colt is versatile and can "go with the best."
"He's proven it," he said. "He's kind of like push-button. You don't have to be on the lead, but when you ask him to run he's going to give you a burst coming down the lane."
If California Chrome wins the $1.5 million Preakness, he could become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 with a victory in the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 7.
Stevens, while acknowledging California Chrome is "beatable" on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, conceded: "I don't see it happening."
"This is the best California horse - and not California-bred - but the best horse to come out of California since Sunday Silence," the jockey said. "Sunday Silence went on to prove himself probably as the best three-year-old of my generation.
"This horse has that same class and fortitude that Sunday Silence did."
(Reporting By Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Julian Linden)