April 23, 2014

Derby Issue 2014: It’s alllll California Chrome ...

Unless those pesky contrarians get ahold of the Derby

It’s the easiest Derby in years. Or at least the simplest to envision: California Chrome is the great big favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby, and deserves to be. No other horse along the Derby Trail of prep races has won so often and so consistently, nor looked so terrific doing it. When California Chrome turns for home, he says adios to his amigos and streaks away down the stretch, creating his own personal showtime moment. Very stylish. Very authoritative.

The name doesn’t hurt, either. California Chrome — now that’s a fun name for a flashy horse — and a whole lot of people are going to like it if he comes a-gleaming down the long runway, er, home stretch at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The flashy red chestnut, with the white blaze down his face, and four white feet. Chromy figures as the shortest-odds Derby favorite since 2008 when Big Brown went off at 2-1 and won easily.

So this is the horse, and the Derby story is simply: Will he or won’t he?

What happened to the other horses? Well, there’ll be other horses. But the ones who were supposed to be good ones, especially in the East, didn’t march right along their appointed Derby paths. Some fizzled in battle; a couple fell by the wayside with injury. Some simply tripped over their pedigrees when the distances lengthened. The horses favored to win the Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby and the other major Derby preps did not come through, and instead of a who’s-who of horsedom arriving in Louisville, the contenders seem more a troupe of who-dats?

Except, as noted, for California Chrome. He just seems to be getting better. In his last race, the Santa Anita Derby, he won drawing away, in fast time.

Of course, many a fast horse has rolled to runaway wins in their prep races, only to find a sterner test in a field of 20 rivals — a field usually full of other speed horses certain to fire up a demanding pace.

But California Chrome showed a professional flair in the Santa Anita Derby, obligingly “rating” for jockey Victor Espinoza behind a speed horse, then roaring to the front when asked, like a big V8 engine. That could well be a perfect scenario for California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby: stalking the speed horses, then inhaling them on the turn for home.

So California Chrome is the story.

 

But will he win? A contrarian theory of this Kentucky Derby might be that the “new” horses only just now coming to the fore represent a healthy evolution of maturing 3-year-old contenders sweeping away the pretenders.

Joe Hirsch, the late Daily Racing Form columnist, always noted the turn to spring as the Derby neared. A time of changing weather, of warm days and cool nights. Of sunshine and rain, when 3-year-old thoroughbreds experienced great spurts of growth, both physically and mentally. Young horses, just barely chronologically 3, coming to hand at the right time for the Kentucky Derby.

Dale Romans is one trainer who is thinking he might have just that kind of maturing horse in Medal Count. After a lackluster winter in Florida, Medal Count perked up back home in Kentucky. The son of Dynaformer, who sired 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, won the Transylvania Stakes on opening day at Keeneland, and Romans ran him right back eight days later for a nice closing second in the Blue Grass Stakes.

“He’s the total package,” says Romans of Medal Count. “He’s big and strong. He’s well-bred. He moves good. He’s got a lot of talent. He’ll go the distance. There’s nothing not to like.”

Romans says he liked Medal Count since the colt arrived at his barn at age 2. But Medal Count had some learning to do.

“Sometimes they don’t understand running, the competition,” says Romans. “Some of them get it quicker than others. This horse was always just naturally talented. But now I think he’s figured out how to compete.

“He’s a Dynaformer, which usually gets you a slower-developing type of horse,” Romans adds. “Even though he had all the natural ability and talent last year, he’s now finally figured it out and got the confidence of how good he is.”

But two preps just bunched before the Kentucky Derby is not the usual order.

“I’ve done a lot of things people thought were out of order,” says Romans with a laugh. “But anyway, he’s a ‘throwback’ horse. He handled it well. He went from an 8 on Friday in the Ragozin Sheets to a 5 and quarter in eight days, so it did him good.”

Romans may also be the only trainer in this year’s Derby not pointing to California Chrome as the horse to beat. This scribe would argue Medal Count is probably the only horse in the Derby with real stamina bloodlines in his pedigree, which would make him a contrast with California Chrome, for one. But it isn’t the California star Romans has his eye on.

“I think Jerkens’ horse is the horse to beat,” says Romans, giving the nod to Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, trained by New York-based Jimmy Jerkens. (Note: Hardboot trainers refer to horses not by their names, but by who trains them.)

But why Wicked Strong?

“He’s peaking at the right time,” says Romans. “Got a nice running style, and he’s handled by Jimmy Jerkens.”

 

Wicked Strong is another horse who didn’t do much over the winter in Florida. But he had run well last fall in New York and was sharp when back in his home territory for the Wood. Wicked Strong laid well off a hot early pace battle, then reeled in the front runners down the stretch.

Jerkens may have helped his horse with a bit of track tactics in the Aqueduct race.

“I said to Rajiv (jockey Rajiv Maragh), ‘It’s great to save ground all the way, but if you can get him to that crown on the stretch, go ahead.’ They were taking off out there all day.”

Interesting, though they will be running this race in Kentucky, rather than over Jerkens’ home court in New York.

Wicked Strong also is interestingly named. The Centennial Farms owners of the horse include partners from Boston and Seattle. After the Boston Marathon attack, the partners hoped to name the horse Boston Strong. That name was taken, so they opted for Wicked Strong, as in wicked nor’easter. A percentage of Wicked Strong’s winnings are donated to a fund to aid victims of the attack.

Another horse suddenly coming to hand is Danza, the surprise run-off winner of the Arkansas Derby at 41-1 odds.

“I looked him over in the paddock and he was cool, calm and collected,” said winning rider Joe Bravo. “Then he was sharp in the gate and left out of there on the money.”

Bravo placed Danza on the rail, and the horse exploded inside horses on the turn to home, flying at the finish. Bravo was still beaming as he talked with HRTV analyst Jeff Siegel after the race. “Being fast and good isn’t everything,” said Bravo. “It’s listening. He was so calm about it all, it gave me confidence when it was time to go.”

And the veteran rider is prepared to ride his 41-1 shot as far as it will take him on the first Saturday in May. “Don’t you have dreams?” says Bravo. “I have dreams.”

 

Of course, the Kentucky Derby is bankrolled with dreams. And there are no more avid Derby Dreamers than the owners of Intense Holiday, whose Starlight Partners include Louisvillians Jack and Laurie Wolf, Jim Shircliff, and Ed and Clint Glasscock — all of whom have chased the Derby Dream with previous Kentucky Derby starters.

Interestingly, the last Louisville owner to win a Kentucky Derby was distilling magnate H.C. Applegate, who named 1914 winner Old Rosebud after his fine brand of bourbon. (Or was the whisky named after Old Rosebud?) They say Old Rosebud wasn’t much to look at it, but he went off odds-on and broke the track record. That was 100 years ago.

Intense Holiday came from well back in the Risen Star, but was kept closer to the pace in the Louisiana Derby. That may have been a tactic prescribed by trainer Todd Pletcher to … well, we’re not sure what he was trying, but pretty certain it had more to do with getting ready for the Kentucky Derby than winning the Louisiana Derby. It’ll be interesting to see where new rider John Velazquez settles the son of Harlan’s Holiday.

Mike Smith, who is riding at the top of his game at age 48, has opted to ride the Bob Baffert trainee Hopportunity, which he brought home second behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.

Blood-Horse columnist Steve Haskin described Hopportunity as a “grinder” who could keep on grinding in the 1¼ miles Kentucky Derby. Haskin noted that while everyone was watching California Chrome, Hopportunity closed into second and matched the winner’s speed with a final eighth mile in 12 2/5. “And I liked the way he rated and stalked from the inside and waited for a seam to open up,” says Haskin. “So as a Kentucky Derby prep, you couldn’t have written a better script for him. And as the proverbial icing on the cake, he once again had a powerful gallop-out, as he has in all his races, and blew by California Chrome after the wire, for whatever it’s worth.”

Might be worth something — especially when forming a trifecta play.

A side story always develops around the Jockey Derby, as the agents of top riders attempt to land their riders in the right saddle. Joel Rosario, who won his first Derby last year on Orb, has the mount on General A Rod, a salty hard-trier who might also be trifecta material. Javier Castellano is not committed at this writing, and he’s been the No. 1 rider in North America. Horses are really running for Castellano now. Calvin Borel is on Ride On Curlin, and We Miss Artie, winner of the Spiral Stakes, does not have a jock named.

And there’s also Rosie Napravnik, who won the 2012 Kentucky Oaks. Rosie will ride Vicar’s In Trouble, aboard whom she aced the Louisiana Derby. “You know, he’s a tiny horse, but he’s got a great big heart,” says Napravnik.

 

Meanwhile, California Chrome, oblivious to all the comings and goings of the equine mob — and contrarian Derby theories — is training at home in California. He won’t fly to Louisville until Monday of Derby Week. That means we won’t see him work over the Downs strip. (A powerful handicapping tool.) But that’s probably a restful benefit for the horse and his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman Jr. They’ll get plenty of mint and juleps when they get here.

In a conversation with Haskin and retired jockey Dave Erb (Needles, 1956), Sherman expressed mock horror over the media circus to come in Louisville. “Oh, God, they’re all waiting for me. I’m gonna have a target on my back when I get there,” says Sherman, who was the exercise rider for Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner.

“I’ve been training here at Los Alamitos,” says Sherman. “It’s a real nice all-loam dirt track like we used to have years ago. I’m just gonna let him get all that California sunshine in. I don’t have to do much with him.”

Erb notes California Chrome seems to have come out of his last race well.

He did,” Sherman agrees. “To be honest with you, he was full of himself today. It’s pretty remarkable. It was the second fastest Santa Anita Derby and he was being pulled up the last 70 yards, so I feel good about it. I don’t want to get too anxious, but he’s won his last four starts by over 25 lengths, and that’s kind of awesome. You (Erb) rode a lot of good horses, so you know what it’s like when a horse can draw off turning for home and beat a bunch of nice horses. I’m just enjoying the ride right now. But I’m getting a little nervous, to be honest with you. I watch him like a hawk. I got 24-hour guards on him, and it’s getting to the nitty gritty now.”

Next week, we will have seen most of the horses in their final training works and offer an official LEO Derby Pick.

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