California Chrome unleashed his move entering the stretch run of Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, blowing away the competition with another dazzling turn of foot, and established himself as the likely Kentucky Derby favorite.
He will head to Churchill Downs with a four-race victory streak, winning those starts by a combined 26 1/4 lengths. And his numbers are first-rate. With two key preps remaining, California Chrome presently owns the top last-out BRIS Speed rating (106), registering the third century-topping figure in the Santa Anita Derby from his last four starts.
The chestnut colt has placed the spotlight on 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who is readying his first starter for a Triple Crown race. An exercise rider for 1955 Derby winner Swaps, the veteran horseman was a leading trainer in Northern California and won a number of stakes races in Southern California back in his heyday but no longer orchestrates a large stable, winning a total of 104 races since 2008.
Seven of those wins came via the probable Derby favorite, who is based at Los Alamitos with Sherman. By low-profile stallion Lucky Pulpit, California Chrome results from a first-time partnership between owners/breeders Steve Coburn and Martin Perry, who have raced mostly claiming horses.
California Chrome will try to become the first California-bred Derby winner since Decidedly in 1962.
Wicked Strong emerged as a late runner to consider in Saturday's TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, earning his first stakes victory with a 3 1/2-length decision. A close third in the Remsen over the same Aqueduct oval last fall, the Hard Spun colt put a couple of disappointing performances at Gulfstream behind him when mowing down favorites Samraat and Social Inclusion in deep stretch.
The final round of final preps is upon us, with nine entered in the Arkansas Derby and 14 in the Blue Grass this Saturday. I'll recap last weekend's races and offer some early thoughts on the upcoming events.
Santa Anita Derby
California Chrome will seek to race up close before pouncing in the 139th Kentucky Derby. If he can deliver the same turn of foot as he did in the Santa Anita Derby and March 8 San Felipe, the competition is in trouble.
In his last two outings, California Chrome turned for home with a short lead over his nearest competitor. And both times Victor Espinoza was loaded with racehorse. To borrow a horse racing cliché, California Chrome exploded into the stretch like he was shot out of a cannon.
His acceleration sets him apart from the other speed horses lining up for this year's Derby -- California Chrome has been able to leave the competition in shambles at a critical juncture -- and that will be the strategy at Churchill Downs. Most editions of the Kentucky Derby are won by upper stretch.
The speedy colt must find a way to carve out a reasonable trip, and the potential for an unfavorable inside post remains, but the biggest concern right now surrounds the 1 1/4-mile distance.
California Chrome has classy stamina influences farther back in his pedigree -- his third maternal dam is by Epsom Derby hero Sir Ivor and the fourth is by Arc winner Vaguely Noble -- but pedigree analysts can scoff at his immediate bloodlines. Sire Lucky Pulpit was a turf sprinter and broodmare sire Not for Love is known for producing useful Maryland-breds, not classic contenders.
The same pedigree question dogged Smarty Jones prior to his 2004 Derby win -- he wound up laying over the field from a talent standpoint and California Chrome could be cut from the same cloth.
He doesn't give up ground in the final furlongs, maintaining or extending his advantage in the last four wins. And while the 7 1/4-length San Felipe romp was impressive, it came at the expense of overmatched rivals. I loved the way California Chrome continued to roll while stretching out in distance against a deeper cast in the Santa Anita Derby.
"I know that the horse likes to have company," Sherman said. "I've seen all his races; he's pretty competitive. He doesn't mind being hooked. Right now, he's kind of freaky and I'm enjoying it. I can't believe the races I've been seeing. A length or two might have been all right with me."
Sherman is planning to wait until five days out to ship California Chrome to Churchill Downs.
Hoppertunity closed well to be a respectable second, 5 1/4 lengths back of the winner and 3 1/2 lengths clear of third-placer Candy Boy. After netting a 99 BRIS Speed rating for his game win in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes, the Bob Baffert-trained colt received a career-best 100 on Saturday.
Unraced at two, Hoppertunity won't bring any fitness worries into the Derby. Including his January 4 debut, the son of Any Given Saturday has managed to squeeze in five prep races this year. That's old school and his runner-up finish brought mentions of Real Quiet, who recorded a non-threatening second to subsequent Derby favorite Indian Charlie in the 1998 Santa Anita Derby before turning the tables with an 8-1 victory at Churchill Downs.
Baffert got what he needed on Saturday and Hoppertunity is a threat to keep moving forward on Derby day.
Candy Boy was all out to narrowly edge the maiden Dublin Up for third, earning enough points to likely qualify the Derby field (30 total). He was perhaps a little rusty following the two-month hiatus, making his first start since a good-looking win in the 1 1/16-mile Bob Lewis, but it was a disappointing effort from a colt with distance concerns. The bay has never earned a Speed rating better than 97 and I don't like his chances stretching out to 1 1/4 miles.
Wicked Strong represents a good cause -- Massachusetts-based Centennial Farms attempted to rename him "Boston Strong" in recognition of the heroes and victims of last year's Boston Marathon bombing. The name was taken so they settled on Wicked Strong and the owners are donating a percentage of the colt's earnings to The One Fund, which benefits those affected by the tragic events.
Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, Wicked Strong will need to prove that he can transfer his form outside of New York.
The Hard Spun colt broke his maiden at Belmont Park second-time out last October and followed with a half-length third in the Remsen. That effort stamped him as one to watch entering 2014 and Wicked Strong was bet down to 4-1 in his seasonal debut, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream in late January.
He never fired finishing a well-beaten ninth and wasn't a serious factor next time out in a deep allowance race on the Fountain of Youth undercard. Wicked Strong did pass some horses for fourth in the latter, but he needed a turnaround in form to challenge in the Wood.
Rating about five lengths off the early pace in sixth, Wicked Strong was positioned along the inside during the early stages. Jockey Rajiv Maragh, riding the bay colt for the first time since the Remsen, deftly guided Wicked Strong off the rail as the colt started to advance approaching the top of the stretch.
Wicked Strong kicked for home widest of all, gradually making up ground on the leaders before surging past in the final sixteenth of a mile. He registered a career-best 103 Speed rating.
"I said to Rajiv, '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," Jerkens said after Wicked Strong received the trip he envisioned.
From a stamina-influenced female family, Wicked Strong appears well-suited for additional ground and his closing style proved extremely effective behind a wicked pace in last year's Derby. The same scenario is possible once again with plenty of early speed expected among 20 rivals.
Wicked Strong rates as a logical contender if he handles the transition to Churchill Downs.
Samraat attempted to settle in second after the break but was shuffled back to third as Social Inclusion sped by him before the end of the first turn. The former speedball continued to show a willingness to rate but came under a full drive rounding the far turn, attempting to go after Social Inclusion after that rival started to open up on the pack.
Kudos to Samraat for battling all the way to the wire -- jockey Jose Ortiz got to the bottom of the hard-trying colt as Samraat gamely overhauled Social Inclusion in the final strides for second. He sustained his first setback in six career starts, but potentially gained a lot from defeat.
"It's his best race," trainer Richard Violette Jr. said. "It's the first time he's been surrounded and covered up, and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth the entire (stretch run) and he kept finding more, finding more. Good horses rally from this and get better.
"Other than win, he got a huge education. As long as he comes out of it all right we'll head to Kentucky. I don't think there's anything he can't do."
Samraat, who was exiting narrow wins in the Gotham and Withers, is as game as they come. I don't know about his effectiveness at 10 furlongs but won't be surprised to see him in the mix entering the stretch drive of the Derby.
Social Inclusion will head to the Preakness following his third-place effort. That's probably a wise move considering the colt didn't make his career debut until February 22 and the comparisons to Red Bullet are interesting. Unraced at two, Red Bullet caused a similar stir capturing his first couple of starts by open lengths. He suffered his first loss in the Wood before rebounding to capture the 2000 Preakness.
Bayern makes his stakes debut in the Arkansas Derby and figures to show speed with Gary Stevens. Unbeaten from a pair of starts, the Bob Baffert charge exits a 15-length romp in a February 13 allowance at Santa Anita.
Bayern missed a scheduled start in the San Felipe due to a foot bruise. That may prove irrelevant, but the lightly-raced colt faces a demanding task off the two-month layoff, stretching out past a mile for the first time against seasoned rivals.
I'm inclined to take a wait-and-see approach at low odds.
Tapiture merits serious respect following a runner-up to Hoppertunity in the March 15 Rebel and Strong Mandate has a chance to run better for D. Wayne Lukas. I took a long look at Commissioner -- a slow start cost him in the Sunland Derby but he's now fit and wheels back from only a three-week rest for the usually conservative WinStar Farm/Todd Pletcher. I like the move and will include him in multi-race wagers.
Ride on Curlin is my top selection. A sharp maiden winner at Ellis Park last summer, the Bill Gowan-trained colt went on to record a good third in the Champagne two starts later, rallying fast for third after an extremely wide trip. Ride on Curlin faltered when concluding 2013 in the Street Sense -- he's zero-for-three at Churchill Downs -- but showed his affinity for Oaklawn when opening this year with a convincing allowance win.
After being wiped out on the first turn in the February 17 Southwest, Ride on Curlin managed to recover with a third-place effort that is easily underappreciated. He got trapped down on the rail early in the Rebel, with Strong Mandate and Hoppertunity forcing his hand the entire way, and hung in there well for third, beaten only a length while earning commendable Speed and Pace numbers.
Ride on Curlin, the 12-1 sixth choice on the morning line, is capable of an upset with a better trip Saturday.
The Blue Grass has its typical turf feel, with Bobby's Kitten the 3-1 morning line favorite. He's raced exclusively on the sod, establishing himself as clearly the leading three-year-old turf horse in training, and the Chad Brown trainee will be Kentucky Derby-bound with a top two finish on Saturday.
A quartet of contenders must overcome extreme starting positions, with Coastline, Vinceremos, Medal Count and Gala Award breaking from posts 11-14, respectively.
Bobby's Kitten drew well in post 5 with his tactical speed and will be tough to beat if he takes to the Polytrack. But I'll mention a Polytrack-loving longshot to consider.
Asserting Bear, a 1 1/8-mile stakes winner on Woodbine's Polytrack last year, exits a ridiculous trip in the Spiral Stakes. After prematurely rushing forward into contention early on the Turfway backstretch, he suddenly began retreating like he was out of gas entering the far turn before re-rallying again in the stretch, closing boldly to be beaten only two lengths in fourth.
After watching his colt race in spots last time, trainer Reade Baker switches to the Woodbine-based jockey Emma-Jayne Watson and I give Asserting Bear a chance to make an impact with a better trip Saturday.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- California Chrome -- Derby favorite continued to shine with convincing win in Santa Anita Derby.
- Hoppertunity -- Six of the last 13 Derby winners dropped final prep; serious contender for three-time Derby victor Baffert.
- Wicked Strong -- Turned things around in Wood and will be running late at Churchill Downs.
- Samraat -- Hard-trying colt sustained first setback recording a commendable second in Wood.
- Cairo Prince -- Will be overlooked after Florida Derby flop but won't be surprised to see him rebound for McLaughlin.
- Intense Holiday -- Couldn't catch front-running winner but solid effort for second in Louisiana Derby.
- Constitution -- Florida Derby hero is unbeaten in three career starts for Pletcher.
- Bayern -- Allowance romper needs a top two showing in Arkansas Derby to qualify.
- Tapiture -- Churchill Downs stakes winner figures to show up with a good effort in Arkansas Derby.
- Strong Mandate -- Grade 1 winner remains eligible to turn things around for Lukas.