Speed dominated the scoring preps last weekend as California Chrome and Ring Weekend won convincingly.
California Chrome lit up the track in the San Felipe, drawing away impressively to a 7 1/4-length decision at Santa Anita. He posted the second-fastest winning time in the race's history (1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59) and earned a 102 BRIS Speed rating, the top figure in a Kentucky Derby points race this year. The California-bred colt was favored at 7-5 and led wire to wire for the first time in nine starts.
Ring Weekend recorded a surprising victory in the Tampa Bay Derby, scoring by three easy lengths as a 14-1 outsider. Credit Danny Centeno for a heady ride -- he guided the gelding straight to the lead from the rail post and opened up by several lengths during the early going -- and Ring Weekend led all the way for the first time in his six-race career. He was exiting a narrow win at 9-1 in a Gulfstream maiden special weight.
A speed-laden field is building for this year's Kentucky Derby.
Honor Code, who missed several weeks of training due to bruised ankles, returned to action Wednesday (March 12) in a Gulfstream allowance and got drilled by the loose-on-the-lead Social Inclusion, who established a new track record winning by 10 lengths and remained perfect in his second career start. I'm not putting much stock in the race -- the April 5 Wood Memorial will be key for Honor Code.
Top Billing, one of the early Kentucky Derby favorites, is off the trail due to a cracked cannon bone. A rallying third in the Fountain of Youth, the son of Curlin sustained the injury during a workout Saturday morning and trainer Shug McGaughey said the long-term prognosis is good. Besides an abundance of talent, the fast-closing colt possessed a dangerous run style for this year's Kentucky Derby.
War Emblem (2002) is the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby in front-running style since 1994 and the 2013 edition, the first under the new points system, featured some of the fastest opening splits in the storied history of the race (:22 2/5, :45 1/5 and 1:09 4/5). Barring remarkable attrition over the next 7 1/2 weeks, it's fair to assume this year's Kentucky Derby will feature another hot and contested pace.
There's just too much speed being assembled with Wildcat Red, General a Rod, Tapiture, Constitution, Uncle Sigh, Samraat, Chitu, Bayern, Albano, California Chrome and other front-runners in the possible mix.
Oaklawn Park will host the lone scoring race this weekend, Saturday's Grade 2 Rebel, and a nice field of eight is set. Top contenders include Tapiture, Strong Mandate and Kobe's Back.
California Chrome turned around his form in the seven-furlong King Glorious at Hollywood Park December 22. After recording unplaced finishes in three of his first four stakes attempt, the chestnut flew home to win by 6 1/4 widening lengths and netted a 101 Speed rating, 12 points better than his previous career-best.
The improving colt followed another striking victory over state-bred rivals, taking the 1 1/16-mile California Cup Derby by 5 1/2 lengths on January 25. Trainer Art Sherman appeared loaded for bear but California Chrome had accomplished nothing yet against graded stakes rivals.
The San Felipe proved the blossoming colt belongs with the big boys. Midnight Hawk was the speed on paper in the seven-horse field, and trainer Bob Baffert said they were going to let him run, but he broke awkwardly from his outside post and California Chrome seized the initiative from his inside starting position.
"I wanted to try something new today so I let him go right out of the gate," jockey Victor Espinoza explained. "I don't know if people expected me to go right to the lead but I wanted to let him enjoy his race, I just let him go."
Midnight Hawk tried to apply early pressure, hounding California Chrome through splits of :23, :45 2/5 and 1:09 2/5, but it made no impact. With plenty in reserve, California Chrome began accelerating away at the conclusion of the far turn and kicked for home with a tremendous turn of foot.
He passed the midstretch mark up by 4 1/2 lengths and continued to power away late.
Call him the pride of Los Alamitos.
"I didn't think he'd be on the lead, but he was a handful today," Sherman said. "I just told Victor, 'You got him.' I told him he broke like that because of that Quarter Horse training at Los Alamitos (where California Chrome is based). We all know Santa Anita's a speed-biased type of track, so it was really great to see him with the hold he had on him. It's unbelievable.
"I don't think the distance will make any difference, a mile and a quarter," said Sherman in reference to the Kentucky Derby distance. "I think he'll run all day."
It's rare to see a Kentucky Derby contender make multiple starts in 4 1/2-furlong baby races early in their two-year-old season. Those races are typically reserved for speedy, precocious types with no aspirations for classic distances, but California Chrome is proving to be an exception, opening his career in a pair of 4 1/2-furlong maiden special weight dashes in the spring of 2013.
Sire Lucky Pulpit is exceeding expectations. Primarily a turf horse for Todd Pletcher, the son of Pulpit posted his lone stakes win in a five-furlong grass sprint at Arlington and his last 11 starts came at short distances. Lucky Pulpit stands for a $2,500 fee at Harris Farms near Coalinga, California.
California Chrome is out mare by the Maryland-based Not For Love, a son of Mr. Prospector. There is class and stamina further back in his pedigree, but California Chrome is certainly no blue-blood.
Sherman has called California Chrome the "people's horse."
"He's peaking at the right time," the 77-year-old conditioner said Sunday. "The horse has been super, he's putting on weight, he looked excellent in the paddock. I said, 'My, he looks like a race horse today.'"
Sherman said California Chrome will either run in the April 5 Santa Anita Derby or train up to the Kentucky Derby.
"I'm just going to play it by ear."
Tampa Bay Derby
Ring Weekend almost didn't run in the Tampa Bay Derby -- his connections were targeting Saturday's Private Terms at Laurel Park -- but the audible assured him a spot in the Kentucky Derby field with 50 points.
"We were all set to go to Laurel, but Graham (Motion) called me Monday -- we have the kind of relationship where we both kind of test each other out -- to see if either of us was strong either way," co-owner Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds said. "Then we got word Kiaran (McLaughlin's) horse, Baratti, was running at Laurel, and on paper he has run faster than all these (in the Tampa Bay Derby), so we decided to enter here. Funny how those things work out."
Motion was at least slightly surprised with the outcome.
"I wouldn't say my confidence was high, but I really thought he was legit," the trainer said.
Centeno kept looking back for competition that never materialized. Ring Weekend led by 3 1/2 lengths after an opening half-mile in :46 3/5 and maintained a clear advantage the rest of the way.
"I think the others kind of left him alone because they possibly didn't consider him a legit horse and he got away with it," Motion said. "When the jockey looks behind him that much, you feel like he has a lot left. I could never have anticipated him winning like that."
After netting a 91 Speed rating in his maiden win, Ring Weekend easily posted a career-best 97 in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Tapit provides speed on top and Ring Weekend figures to receive stamina from the female side of his pedigree (he's out of a mare by Cryptoclearance). But I'm still not sold on him as a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
Ring Weekend will need to revert to rating tactics to have any chance and his connections said they plan to use the April 5 Calder Derby as his final prep, which offers no points and probably won't attract a quality field.
Kentucky Derby Top 10