By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
Every year, for at least a week and sometimes two, the road to the Kentucky Derby seems to veer through Oz, not that monkeys start flying or lions talking, but just about everything that happens elicits a “Really?” or at least raises an eyebrow. Everything, in other words, moves the needle on the surprise meter. Well, this past week was that week.
A Cal-bred who trains at Los Alamitos looked like a superstar at Santa Anita, a long shot who was a maiden just last month cruised in the Tampa Bay Derby, a horse who shares a name with a disk jockey and a boxer but closes like Harry Truman rallied from last to win the Private Terms Stakes, and an injury knocked a colt whose future seemed rosy completely off the road to Kentucky. Really? Yes, it was that kind of week.
Surprises in this game, of course, are usually unwelcome and often adverse, and so it was last week with, first, the news that Bayern wouldn’t run in the San Felipe. The promising and unbeaten colt was scratched because of a quarter crack, or cracked hoof. But his trainer, Bob Baffert, said Bayern is “still in the picture.”
Top Billing, however, isn’t. Regarded by many as one of the leaders on the Derby trail, Top Billing reportedly cracked a cannon bone during a workout Saturday. Third in the Fountain of Youth, he was preparing for the Florida Derby when injured.
And then there was the Golden State bolt from the blue, otherwise known as California Chrome. His victory wasn’t surprising; after all, he was the 7-5 San Felipe favorite. But the style and dominance of his victory had to raise an eyebrow and drop a jaw or two. He outbroke the field to grab the lead immediately and, as the old saying goes, improved his position from there. Once Victor Espinoza guided him to the rail, the flashy chestnut cruised, getting only a tap on the shoulder for encouragement in the stretch.
And after 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59, he finished more than seven lengths in front of an overmatched but game Midnight Hawk, who tried to offer a challenge in the second turn but simply couldn’t keep up. It was another 6 ¼ lengths back to Kristo in third.
California Chrome has won three consecutive races now by a total of 19 lengths and five of nine in his career. But how good is he? After all, before the San Felipe, all his victories had come at the expense of California-breds. Well, the impression here is that California Chrome is exceptional: Quite simply, in the San Felipe he gave the best performance by a 3-year-old this year.
Yes, the Santa Anita surface was even faster than usual Saturday, incredibly fast in fact, and it was kind to speed. But every racetrack, to some degree, favors speed; after all, this is racing. California Chrome’s splits for a half-mile (45.39 seconds) and three-quarters (1:09.49) were comparable to those thrown down by Game On Dude, who had a much longer run to the first turn, in the Big ’Cap the same day. And like his elder, California Chrome just kept going. If he can duplicate that performance, he’ll win most of the races he enters, maybe even the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
But that’s the question, isn’t it? Can he duplicate that effort, or has he already peaked? Can he duplicate that performance over a different surface? Can he extend that coruscating brilliance another sixteenth of a mile? And can he mete out his speed and energy in such a way that he can be effective at a classic distance?
Already he has been a huge surprise, a racehorse pulled out of a hat. He has outrun not only his California rivals, but also his provenance. Look at that pedigree and you’ll say, “Really?” His sire, Lucky Pulpit, did his best racing on turf and never won beyond 5 ½ furlongs. California Chrome’s dam, Love The Chase, won but once in her modest career, and that was on the bottom rung of the claiming ladder.
But California Chrome, with the 50 points he earned in the San Felipe, is in the Kentucky Derby, as his trainer Art Sherman said, pointing out that the pressure is off and he has made no plans for the colt’s next start. With the champion Shared Belief almost certainly unable, at this point, to get to the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome and Candy Boy are starting to look like the clear leaders coming out of the West. Once he gets over his foot issues, the lightly raced Bayern might join them, and Kobe’s Back is intriguing. But the leaders are clearly California Chrome and Candy Boy, and that’s something of a surprise, too.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Ring Weekend set off some surprising fireworks of his own. As a 14-1 outsider, he led the Tampa Bay Derby field through some solid splits (an opening half-mile in 46.68) and was never really threatened; he completed the 1 1/16 miles in a respectable, although hardly dazzling, 1:43.71 while winning by three lengths over Vinceremos, with Surfing U S A third. The favorite, Conquest Titan, offered a modest late run to finish fourth.
Exactly one month earlier, at Gulfstream Park, Ring Weekend was winning for the first time in his career. To his credit, he stepped modestly forward with every race he ever ran, but he needed five of them to find the winner’s circle. The son of Tapit – yes, another one – is obviously improving. Although his performance at Tampa Bay was a few lengths behind the Derby vanguard, he’s moving in a positive direction for trainer Graham Motion. And like California Chrome, Ring Weekend virtually reserved his place in the Derby starting gate with the 50 points he earned Saturday.
And at Laurel in Maryland, Kid Cruz performed a magic trick that, having raised some eyebrows, might put him on road to Kentucky. He made a 19-length deficit, abracadabra, disappear. Last and far back after a half-mile, the son of Lemon Drop Kid advanced in the second turn, swung to the outside and charged through the stretch to win the Private Terms Stakes by four lengths. Really? Yes, it was that kind of week.
But normalcy should return this week, along with Honor Code. He’s to make his seasonal debut Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, and Tapiture and Strong Mandate will meet again Saturday at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes.