The 2014 Kentucky Derby comes down to California Chrome and everyone else.
The California-bred comes into the Run for the Roses with only one knock. Heâ€™s a California bred. No Cal bred has won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. This might not be the equal of the Apollo jinx but it is a fairly strong non-recommendation.
Otherwise, California Chrome offers everything you would want in a Derby horse. Heâ€™s at the top of his game, a winner of four straight. From a couple dozen major Derby preps, only three horses have won twice.
California Chrome is one of them. (Samraat, the terror of Aqueductâ€™s winter track, and Vicarâ€™s in Trouble, who won the relatively minor LeComte before taking the Louisiana Derby, are the others.)
California Chromeâ€™s romps in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby over superior competition outweighs those.
Although his breeding doesnâ€™t scream distance, veteran trainer Art Sherman says California Chrome can run all day. â€śHe has no wasted motion. A mile and a quarter should be no problem for him.â€ť The way California Chrome drew away in the stretch as the distances extended lends credibility to Shermanâ€™s faith.
California Chrome is tractable. He likes to race close to the pace but can take back a bit if Victor Espinoza decides this is the way to go. This could be crucial in a race in which the early fractions are expected to be hot and contested.
Heâ€™s also a great story, the first horse for an owner who bred him, with a trainer who has kicked around for more than a half-century. Racing could use a heart-warming antidote to the Steve Asmussen contretemps.
But most people like to try to beat the favorite so there are other places to look for a winner. I agree with something Mike Maker said during a Derby conference call. Maker, who will saddle Vicarâ€™s in Trouble, General a Rod and Harryâ€™s Holiday, acknowledged that California Chrome is a deserving favorite but added, â€śIâ€™m not sure the Florida horses arenâ€™t the strongest.â€ť
Indeed, Gulfstream-based 3-year-olds were potent on the Derby trail. Vinceremos shipped over to Tampa to win the Sam F. David. Ring Weekend, who has opted out of the Derby, took the same cross-Florida route to capture the Tampa Derby.
Intense Holiday went to the Fair Grounds twice. He ran over the Louisiana contingent in the Risen Star, with eventual Rebel winner Hoppertunity, in his
wake, then chased home Vicarâ€™s in Trouble, who fell into a dream trip on the lead in the Louisiana Derby.
Danza was still eligible for an entry level allowance when he shipped from Gulfstream to Oaklawn to upset the Arkansas Derby.
Wicked Strong was a disappointment in South Florida but shipped north to win the Wood Memorial and became the new darling of the beat-the-favorite crowd. This is based on the belief that all he needed was to get away from speed-favoring Gulfstream, where he had the only two out-of-the-money finishes on his resume. If the pace is as hot as expected, he will be running down a lot of horses in the long Churchill stretch.
Moreover, two of Gulfstream's best, Florida Derby winner Constitution and Holy Bull hero Cairo Prince, won't make the Derby but ultra game Wildcat Red and General a Rod will. There was no tougher place to win a stakes this winter.
Iâ€™ll use Wicked Strong in my pick 3â€™s and 4â€™s but I prefer Intense Holiday, who has gotten better with each race. He came south with a maiden win at
Monmouth, his only in-the-money finish from five starts as a 2-year-old. He immediately became Grade 2 placed with an OK third in the Holy Bull before
his two big races at the Fair Grounds.
All winter Iâ€™ve felt that Wildcat Red and General a Rod have distance limitations. I still feel that way but it wouldnâ€™t shock me if either hit the board for a minor share.
Danza got a dream run up the rail in the Arkansas Derby. He doesnâ€™t have Calvin Borel aboard, so how likely is that to happen again in a 20-horse field?
If the best horses were in Florida, those in California werenâ€™t far behind. As noted, Hoppertunity shipped east to win the Rebel. Then he ran second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Candy Boyâ€™s poor effort in that race is a mystery but he was considered the best in the West until California Chrome emerged, so he has the talent to bounce back at a nice price.
Iâ€™ve discounted NYRA winter warriors Samraat and Uncle Sigh all season. Iâ€™ll either be vindicated or look foolish Saturday.
The same goes for synthetic specialists Dance With Fate, We Miss Artie, Medal Count and Harryâ€™s Holiday.
Ride on Curlin has been close in several stakes but appears to lack the punch to get the job completely done.
For the good of racing, letâ€™s hope that Steve Asmussen-trained Tapiture doesnâ€™t repeat his Churchill Downs victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The negativity an Assmussen win would generate would turn racingâ€™s grandest day into a dark one.
In multi-race wagers, I'll have a lot of California Chrome, a goodly share of Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and a few small savers on Candy Boy and Wicked Strong. In exactas, I'll box California Chrome, Intense Holiday and Hoppertunity and put California Chrome on top and bottom of the other four I mentioned.
May the sun shine bright.