Trainer Art Sherman is hoping that California Chrome can replicate his 1¾-length victory at Pimlico next weekend with a chance to capture the Triple Crown three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes.
As many as 10 horses could run in the 1 3-16-mile Preakness, less than the maximum of 14. The race last drew a full field in 2005. The purse has been boosted to $1.5 million, the first increase since 1998.
California Chrome takes a five-race winning streak into the 139th Preakness, all with jockey Victor Espinoza.
If Sherman had his way, though, the Triple Crown races would be spaced farther apart than the long-held format of three races over a five-week span. Only 11 horses have swept the series, and none since Affirmed in 1978.
"I know it's tradition, but it's grueling," he said. "You got three different tracks and you got to travel."
Heck, he'd prefer an extra week between the Derby and Preakness. Sherman has never run a horse back as quickly as he will at Pimlico.
"It's pushing the envelope a little bit," he said. "It takes a horse 11 days to really recover out of a race."
California Chrome has had the heaviest schedule of any likely Preakness runner. It will be his 12th start, and fifth this year. Only Ride On Curlin comes close in experience. He will be making his 11th start.
"The seasoning definitely helps and I think it is a big advantage," trainer Billy Gowan said about Ride On Curlin. "Now if we can get a little more early pace this time, it may not hurt him (California Chrome), but it will help us."
Sherman has a notion of what would be the ideal trip for California Chrome. The colt likes to run at a target, which could be provided by a few speed horses in the field.
"If he can come out of there and be fourth going around the turn, fourth down the backside and have a clear path, you're going to see old Chrome perform," Sherman said.
California Chrome is training for the Preakness at Churchill Downs and is scheduled to arrive at Pimlico on Monday, five days before the race.
California Chrome's time in the 1¼-mile Derby of 2:03.66 was the slowest on a fast track since Cannonade clocked 2:04 in 1974. Sherman defended his colt, which ran the second-fastest time when he won the Santa Anita Derby.
"Do you realize how many good horses come out of the Santa Anita Derby and go on to win the Kentucky Derby?" he said. "You can't go by tracks, every surface is different. They don't pay any more to break track records."
The other Derby horses set to run are Ride On Curlin, who finished seventh and will have a new jockey for the Preakness; and General a Rod, who finished 11th.
"He didn't get a chance to show his true colors in the Derby," said General a Rod's trainer Mike Maker, "so it's the Preakness and we figured we'd give it a shot."
Last year, Orb won the Derby and then finished fourth behind Oxbow in the Preakness, which included eight horses.
The 77-year-old Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the Derby, but he won't be the oldest with a horse in the Preakness.
That distinction belongs to 85-year-old Manny Azpurua, who will saddle Social Inclusion, the third-place finisher in the Wood Memorial. With a victory, he would surpass "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, who was 82 years and 10 months when he trained Bold Ruler to victory in 1957.
Social Inclusion has shown no problems with a foot bruise that kept him out of a stakes race at Florida's Gulfstream Park last weekend.
"California Chrome is a very nice horse, but I think we have a chance to beat him," said Ronald Sanchez, Social Inclusion's owner.
So does Wesley Ward, who trains Pablo Del Monte, the third-place finisher in the Blue Grass. The colt could have run in the Derby, but he would have had to start from the far outside post in the field of 20, so Ward elected to wait for the Preakness.
"He's sitting on his best possible race," he said, noting his colt hasn't run since April 12. "I certainly don't wish anyone bad racing luck, but five weeks versus two weeks you'd certainly want to be in the position I'm in now, timing-wise."
Among the other Preakness probables are: Bayern, trained by five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert; Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact; Kid Cruz; Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend; and filly Ria Antonia, who was sixth in last weekend's Kentucky Oaks.
A filly hasn't taken on the boys in the Preakness since Rachel Alexandra won in 2009.
Sherman knows some of California Chrome's challengers have been lying in wait specifically to challenge the Derby champion.
"I can't blame them," he said. "I hope the racing gods are looking down at me."