As one might expect from his name, Coffeewithchris is an early riser.

At his home stable in Laurel, his typical training run is at 5:30 a.m. The sun was just rising over Pimlico on Thursday morning, but Coffeewithchris was already coming off the track, rearing his head as his groomers hosed him down next to his barn stall.

John Salzman Jr. noted that his 3-year-old gelding was “a little wound up” as an unfamiliar cluster of onlookers with cameras leered from just a few feet away.

“I’m a little skittish myself,” he chuckled.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Salzman is no greenhorn on the track. He’s been running his own horses for 15 years, and he was around the stalls for decades before that with his father, John Salzman Sr. They live and work in Laurel, and among the many big tracks where he’s raced, Pimlico is definitely one of the most familiar.

But Coffeewithchris is his first horse in a Triple Crown race, and there is a different energy to the experience as they prepare for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

“Coming to [Preakness] is one thing. I can drink a few beers and relax,” Salzman Jr. told The Banner. “This is a little stressful. We’re gonna get through it, but it’s just a lot.”

Coffeewithchris is a long shot, 20-1 on the morning line. Even those cheering him Saturday acknowledge that it would be a stunner if he were to beat the odds against expensive horses and famous trainers: “He won’t embarrass us,” Salzman Jr. offered diplomatically.

But come on: This is a Maryland race. Coffeewithchris was foaled in Woodbine at Shamrock Farms, the first state-bred horse to be entered since 2019. He’s raced nine times in Laurel, making him the most experienced horse in the field. In Preakness, there are just seven other horses to contend with, and only one that ran in the Kentucky Derby (winner Mage).

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Salzman Jr. feels this weekend might be as good a chance as he will ever get in the headline event of Maryland thoroughbred racing. So he asked the one authority he trusts: his dad. And, to his surprise, the elder Salzman agreed.

“It’s not gonna hurt him any,” Salzman Sr. told The Banner. “You look at the horse, he’s the picture of health. If he’s ever gonna beat those other horses, it’s probably gonna be now.”

If the Salzman family — including Salzman Sr. and brothers Salzman Jr. and Tim Salzman, who all stable in Laurel — is going to crack through in a Triple Crown race, it’s probably now, too.

It’s tempting to paint an idyllic picture of a racing heritage passed through generations. But the truth is Salzman Sr. feels conflicted about his sons following him into racing, a field in which he believes it has gotten harder for local horsemen to compete: “It’s not a good business.”

Salzman Sr. has worked for five decades with more than 5,500 races under his belt and has not retired — to this day, he’s still up at 4:30 a.m. and headed to the stables shortly thereafter.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In all that time, he’s had one horse that has stood out above all others: Xtra Heat, a super filly that won 26 races and made over $2 million. It’s the kind of horse that working-class trainers get once in a lifetime.

“I’ll never have another horse like that — I certainly wish I could,” Salzman Sr. said. “I feel very fortunate. Bought her for $5,000 and got lucky. She sure took us everywhere we needed to go.”

When the younger Salzman started breaking Laurel track records in the late aughts, inevitably in the winners’ circle he’d be inundated with comparisons.

“First question: ‘What do you think? Is she as good as Xtra Heat?’” Salzman Sr. said. “I’m like, really? But I understand. It’s no comparing to her. Probably the best I’ve ever been around or been involved with.”

Coffeewithchris doesn’t measure up to Xtra Heat, either, Salzman Jr. said. But the foundation of a great David-and-Goliath story is there, including a humble origin.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Coffeewithchris was bought at auction in 2021 as a yearling. Though he counts the 2007 Preakness champion Curlin (a horse that plays prominently in the genetics of this race) as a grandsire, he did not fetch the price his breeders hoped, going to Salzman Jr. for $2,000.

But it’s still a big moment for them, too. Coffeewithchris is the first Triple Crown entrant in Jim Steele’s 46-year stewardship as manager at Shamrock Farms, which is owned by National Thoroughbred Racing Association President Tom Rooney (whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers). And it makes sense that the younger Salzman coaxed the best out of him.

“He comes to these auctions, sits in the back and has a great eye for what he likes,” Steele said. “He’s a long shot, but it would be great for Maryland, would be great for everybody, and it would be a feather in John’s cap.”

Salzman Jr. has done his best to manage the hometown expectations, even though a good chunk of fans might be eager to back an underdog with Maryland roots. Coffeewithchris is a pace-setter who starts well. He lost last month in the Federico Tesio Stakes to Perform, a Preakness racer trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, but his fifth-place finish was just two lengths behind.

As tough as it is for him and his family to compete at the Triple Crown level, and as long as the odds are, he’s viewing Preakness as the chance to fulfill a longtime dream — with the faint, faint possibility of maybe something truly worth remembering. His family will be there, including his father, brother, daughter and 6-month-old grandchild. They’ll be representing the state, and they’ll be enjoying the ride.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“He’s fun,” Salzman Jr. said of Coffeewithchris. “He runs hard every time you run him. We keep going a little further with the distance each time.

“He’s just a nice horse,” he added. “We’re hoping he’s a classic horse on Saturday.”

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum. 

More From The Banner