By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
Over the next 10 days or so, much will be written extolling the virtues of California Chrome. His virtues are as conspicuous as they are numerous. He’s professional and smart; most of all, he’s fast. And he just keeps running. He deserves the praise, the plaudits and the acclaim. In this run-up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, he has given not only the best performance of any 3-year-old but arguably the best two performances.
And based on those two races, he’s not just the best 3-year-old in the country, but he’s best by daylight. At this point, he’s probably a few lengths better than any other horse of his generation. And if this were the feature race on a Thursday he’s preparing for, he’d be the odds-on favorite. But, of course, this is the Derby, the most turbulent moment in sports.
The unique confluence of circumstances – the pressured atmosphere, the 20-horse field, the long and frenetic run to the first turn, the 1 ¼ miles – can bring out the greatness in a horse. The circumstances can also expose a weakness previously hidden. Yes, right now, at this moment, California Chrome is best. But what counts is that moment following the musical outburst and the thunderclap of excitement on the afternoon of May 3, that moment that compresses years of planning and nurturing and months of preparation into two minutes. Will he be best then, when it counts, when the world and history are watching?
California Chrome was foaled, or born, on Feb. 18. He’s two months older than Danza and Intense Holiday, nearly three months older than Hoppertunity, Bayern and Tapiture. In the development of a youngster, a month is precious. Could some of these younger horses step forward and challenge California Chrome, or even surpass him? Absolutely. Could the unique confluence of circumstances challenge the latent greatness within a horse who’s still relatively unnoticed and unheralded? Absolutely.
After all, it’s the Derby.
The Top 10 Kentucky Derby Championship Series Performances
1. California Chrome, Santa Anita Derby. The flashy chestnut overcame a little trouble early, showed his willingness to control his speed and then finished full of run, with a final three-eighths of a mile in 36.71 seconds, drawing clear to win by more than five lengths. He’ll be a deserving favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby.
2. California Chrome, San Felipe. He put away the speedy Midnight Hawk after three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.45 and then really went to work, winning by more than seven lengths under a long hold.
3. Constitution, Florida Derby. This is a difficult race to measure simply because Gulfstream Park tends to favor speed so unabashedly and because the pace was so modest. Still, the lightly raced colt fought through an opening along the rail to win in a photo in a determined effort. Most important, Constitution ran down Wildcat Red, who loves Gulfstream Park and was cruising along on an easy lead through those casual splits (48.19 for the opening half-mile and 1:12 for three-quarters). Constitution has been sidelined, but he could be a special horse. As for Wildcat Red and General a Rod, who finished second and third and are aimed at the Derby, it’s hard to imagine them moving forward on May 3.
4. Wicked Strong, Wood Memorial. He made up two lengths in the final furlong and then drew clear to win the Wood by more than three lengths. In other words, he finished strongly indeed, with a final furlong in 12.52 seconds, suggesting the classic distance of the Derby is within his reach. If the 140th Derby is won in deep stretch, this horse could be wearing the roses. But six of the last 10 Derby winners, had taken the lead and control of the race by mid-stretch, and last year Orb was only a head back with a furlong remaining. And even horses that rally from far back to win the Derby generally make up more ground in the second turn than in the stretch.
5. Danza, Arkansas Derby. Yes, he was 41-1, but he ran as if he were an odds-on favorite, spurting clear to win by nearly five lengths in a very solid clocking for the day (1:49.68 for 1 1/8 miles). The Arkansas Derby was his first race around two turns, and Danza performed as if this is what he was born to do, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 37.09 seconds and galloping out beyond the wire with outstanding energy.
6. Hoppertunity, Rebel. A late foal – he won’t actually turn 3 until May 7 – Hoppertunity has made huge strides in his last two races, and with another forward move he could be a major threat to win the roses. In the Rebel, he rallied in the second turn and finished strongly despite encountering trouble through the lane.
7. Hoppertunity, Santa Anita Derby. And in the Santa Anita Derby, although he never threatened, he was a clear second, defeating some very capable horses. Most important, for the recent Santa Anita race, he didn’t have to get on a plane and travel halfway across the country and he didn't have to pour out all his energy to secure second. He could be ready to take that next step at Churchill.
8. Tapiture, Rebel. Although second, he might have been best in the Rebel, but at the very least his performance was the equal of Hoppertunity’s. Tapiture’s fourth in the Arkansas Derby, however, raises questions about his effectiveness beyond 1 1/16 miles. A high-strung colt and a late foal, he won’t actually turn 3 until Derby Day.
9. Intense Holiday, Risen Star. He ran into some trouble in the Louisiana Derby and created even more for himself when he ducked in at the top of the stretch. But he hadn’t done anything like that in his other races, and so the lapse might be dismissed as an aberration. For a measure of talent, look instead at his Risen Star effort. He was a little nervous in the saddling area, but after that he was all business. He rallied strongly in the second turn – where the Kentucky Derby is usually won – and ran the fourth quarter-mile in about 24 seconds. He got up in the final strides for the victory and then galloped out with overflowing energy. And it’s worth noting that Vicar’s in Trouble, who would win the Louisiana Derby, finished third, and that Hoppertunity, who would win the Rebel, finished fourth.
10. Chitu, Sunland Derby. Chitu looks like a sprinter and has the speed and quickness of a sprinter, but he hasn’t conceded he’s a sprinter, not yet anyway. When he won the Sunland Derby, he pressed a rapid pace – 46.46 seconds for the half and 1:09.60 for three quarters – and then persevered, while everybody around him was staggering – to win by more than two lengths. Still, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile over a fast surface in 38.28 seconds, which suggests he’s unlikely to step forward at 1 ¼ miles.