Three-year-old California Chrome, known for his quirky smiles during bath time and his insistence to only back himself out of trailer vans, is also known in the horse racing circuit as a "freak of nature."
That's how trainer Bob Baffert referred to the Kentucky Derby winner following his next win at Pimlico in the Preakness Stakes. The thrilling races have primed the California colt for a shot at capturing horse-racing's elusive Triple Crown.
Baffert knows a thing or two or three about being a contender for the Triple Crown — he's trained three horses that came close to the sport's prestigious honor. But this time, he says he sees something different in California Chrome.
"There's something about this horse," he said. "I think he's going to do it."
Behind the reigns of California Chrome is 42-year-old jockey Victor Espinoza. The former bus driver in Mexico City has also been close to the Triple Crown before.
He rode Baffert-trained War Emblem in 2002 to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, only to nearly collapse right out of the gate at Belmont.
"He had a bad break," Baffert said. "He stumbled leaving the gate so it took him completely out of it."
But this time, it's a whole new horse and a whole new rhythm for Espinoza.
Coming off the Preakness, Espinoza said it was the hardest race he's run in his entire 25-year career.
"The number three... I really didn't like that post at three," he said, referring to Chrome's position at Pimlico Saturday. "For California Chrome, I would've liked better to be on the outside, but when I saw the three and all the speed that was outside of me, it was very tough."
Espinoza is credited with controlling the horse into a weaving route to get to the outside.
"I didn't want to burn him early, but I also wanted to let him run when it was time to go," he said, adding that the mental stress far outweighed his physical stress.
"I was just waiting for that moment to just turn the reins loose and let it go," Espinoza said. "I have confidence in California Chrome. When I turn him loose, he drops to the ground and he opens up."
And California Chrome did just that, winning the Preakness Saturday and setting the stage for a historic run in three weeks in New York.
"Soon as I get on California Chrome, I drop the reins," Espinoza said. "He's smart, he likes to play with the pony and I let him do whatever he wants. As long as he don't drop me, it's fine with me!"
Espinoza said the connection he has with California Chrome is a strong one, the horse appearing to be playful prior to reaching the starting gates, where Espinoza said he reminds him who's in charge.
"As we walk to the gate, I let him know who's in control. I tell him, 'It's time to go, time to perform, time to work,' and 'Hi, I'm the boss.'"
The Belmont Stakes is set for June 7 in New York. If California Chrome wins, he would be the first to win the coveted and elusive title since Affirmed in 1978. It could also set the stage for a first-ever Triple Crown-winner to run in the Breeder's Cup set to take place at Santa Anita Park in the fall.
"I hope he can do it," Espinoza said. "If he can do it and he's ready, I'm ready for it."