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BALTIMORE (Reuters) - California Chrome drew away from the field in the stretch and easily won the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday to remain in the hunt for the elusive Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby champion, ridden by Victor Espinoza, settled in nicely in third place before making his move on the far turn and grabbing the lead at the top of the stretch.
California Chrome, winner of six straight races, held a three-length lead in mid-stretch and cruised to the wire 1 1/4 lengths ahead of hard-charging Ride On Curlin.
"I had to move early today," said Espinoza. "I had to start moving in the half-mile pole, which is tough for a horse to start moving early and keep going all the way to the end. It's not easy."
Finishing third on a beautiful day at Pimlico Race Course before a record crowd of 123,469 was Social Inclusion, 6 1/2 lengths behind Ride On Curlin.
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, a pair of small-time owners who created DAP Racing (Dumbass Partners), bought a mare named Love the Chase for $8,000 and paid a $2,500 stud fee to breed her with Lucky Pulpit, who won only three of his 22 starts.
The result of that modest mating was the chestnut California Chrome, who won $900,000 for Saturday's triumph to push his career earnings to nearly $3.5 million.
Trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, California Chrome has won all five of his starts in 2014 and over his 12-race career has eight wins and a second.
"It's quite a thrill," said Sherman. "I know he had to run harder in this race (than the Kentucky Derby). Just watching him perform, I was a little concerned coming back in two weeks.
"I'll tell you one thing: He's a real race horse ... I have a tear (in my eye) because we worked hard all year and Victor rode him perfect. It's a dream for any trainer to do this."
If California Chrome can win the mile-and-one-half Belmont Stakes on June 7 at Belmont Park in New York, he will become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Espinoza won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2002 aboard War Emblem but managed only an eighth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
"It's not easy," Espinoza said of winning the Triple Crown. "If it was easy a lot of horses would have won the Triple Crown, you know? 30-something years (since the last one), it's just crazy.
"It has to be a super horse to win that. They lose so much energy (having three races in five weeks). Hopefully California Chrome comes back good, and he is the one who can do it."
California Chrome, the 1-2 favorite in a field of 10, returned $3.00, $3.00 and $2.40 for a $2 ticket. Ride On Curlin, ridden by Joel Rosario, returned $5.60 and $3.80, while Social Inclusion paid $3.40.
"I thought that I had him and we were going strong," Rosario said of his colt's stretch run. "But if I got beat, I wanted it to be California Chrome because he is a great horse."
The winning time for the mile-and-three-16th race was a swift 1:54 4/5, though well off the Preakness record of 1:53 set in 1973 by Secretariat, who went on to win the Triple Crown.
"I wouldn't want to be in anybody else's shoes right now," said Sherman, who two weeks ago became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby.
"The horse is a phenomenal horse. I know right now we're running on a high. But I think when we get to Belmont this horse is going to run big. I really do."
Coburn, California Chrome's affable owner, said he did not want to see fresh horses in the Belmont Stakes, adding he believed only the horses that race in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to run in the other Triple Crown races.
Only three of the 10 Preakness horses ran in the Derby, and many of those that were absent on Saturday are expected to run in the Belmont Stakes.
"If you bow out in the Preakness, you don't come back for the Belmont," Coburn said. "I honestly believe that if the Triple Crown is not won this year by California Chrome, I will never see it in my lifetime because there are people out there trying to upset the apple cart.
"They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck. So that's my honest opinion. If they don't like it, I don't care. But that's my opinion."
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes