California Chrome had no trouble handling the plethora of speed horses in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), especially with Wildcat Red, General a Rod, and Vicar's in Trouble never getting near the lead. The question now is, will the new wave of talented speed horses expected for the May 17 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) pose a bigger problem for him?
Sitting behind Uncle Sigh and Chitu is one thing. Sitting behind Social Inclusion, Bayern, and Pablo Del Monte could be another story, especially at a shorter distance and with those classy speedballs coming into the second leg of the Triple Crown on relatively fresh legs.
Of course, if California Chrome bounces out of the Derby in excellent shape and isn't affected by the quick two-week turnaround, he could actually encounter another perfect scenario, this time sitting behind three speed horses instead of two.
But don't expect these three—especially Social Inclusion—to pack it in when the flashy chestnut comes rolling at the five-sixteenths pole. All three of the speed horses have something to recommend them.
Bayern is coming off a gut check in the April 28 Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, where he dug in and hung on doggedly to eke out a nose victory, but was disqualified to second for coming out into Embellishing Bob, who eventually was placed first.
Pablo Del Monte, who actually was among the 23 betting interests in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager back in November, is coming off a huge race in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), setting the pace on a synthetic track that favored closers. While he battled on to finish a stubborn third, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, the horses running second, third, fourth, and fifth early wound up finishing 12th, 10th, 11th, and 13th. And Pablo Del Monte was coming off a 10-week layoff, having last run third in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) on dirt at Gulfstream Park.
Although the son of Giant's Causeway made it into the Kentucky Derby field off the also-eligible list with the scratch of Hoppertunity, trainer Wesley Ward and the Coolmore group that own the colt decided not to subject him to post 20. They waited instead for the Preakness, a race they'd been targeting for a while.
As for Social Inclusion, he began his career in explosive fashion, bursting on the scene with a pair of spectacular runaway victories, including a 10-length thrashing of then-leading Derby contender Honor Code in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Gulfstream, shattering the track record.
The colt's owner, Ron Sanchez of Rontos Racing Stable, shocked everyone by turning down several multi-million dollar offers for the colt. They included one for $8 million from an overseas connection, because of his stipulation that 85-year-old Manny Azpurua remain his trainer. He decided to hold off on all offers until the son of Pioneerof the Nile competed in the Twinspires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I).
"I wanted to keep a piece of the horse and retain a breeding right, and to keep him with Manny, but I couldn't get the deal done," Sanchez said at the time. "Everyone would say, 'We deal with our trainer.' Manny is 85 years old and old school, and he's someone I respect. He's loyal and is a legend in Venezuela, where he won 3,500 races. There is no reason to take the horse away from him, no matter how much money they offer.
"Manny is patient and the horse knows his training methods. If you take the horse away, I believe he will 'bounce' in the Wood. I'm a risk taker, and if the horse wins the Wood, I'm sure a couple of people will come to us with a contract. Everything will keep building, the price included."
So, Social Inclusion ran in the Wood Memorial, and in only his third career start, ran a bang-up third, battling on the lead the entire way from the 10 post, putting the stubborn Schivarelli away and opening a two-length lead turning for home. Although he got tired inside the eighth pole with so little bottom under him, he still fought hard all the way and was just nipped for second by the undefeated Samraat after he never saw the winner, Wicked Strong, rallying on the far outside.
Although he was defeated for the first time, Social Inclusion gained a great number of admirers. He was then scheduled to run in the Sir Bear Stakes at Gulfstream on Derby Day as a prep for the Preakness, but was scratched after suffering a foot bruise. The injury apparently has healed and he set forth to Baltimore, arriving May 8, where he now awaits California Chrome. In a battle of multi-million-dollar price tags, the owners of both colts rolled the dice and turned down outrageous offers for their horses, and their trainers are each in the national spotlight for the first time at ages 77 and 85.
Social Inclusion was the first horse to arrive at Pimlico Race Course, pulling in around 5 a.m. May 8. Sanchez said he's he's happy and healthy and is 95% healed from his foot bruise, which should completely healed with a couple of days of light training. He will gallop Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and work on Monday, May 12.
Sanchez said he was very happy with the colt's performance in the Wood Memorial and is now happy he skipped the Kentucky Derby, having the Preakness as a long term goal.
"He had the worst post in the Wood and didn't break well and Luis (Contreras) had to rush him and race wide," Sanchez said. "But the horse learned to be tested. I had been disappointed he didn't get in the Derby, but it's better for the horse. I just didn't want him running in a 20-horse field. Look what happened to Wildcat Red. I learned that sometimes things happen for a reason.
"Two months ago, I said the plan was to go for the Wood and Preakness and now we're here, and we'll try our best to beat 'the Chrome.' I've always said this was a Triple Crown horse, but I didn't want to rush him. In the Preakness, there will only be a field of 10-12 horses and he has the speed, and you saw what Oxbow did last year, winning wire to wire."
Sanchez said he has no regrets turning down the huge offers for the horse.
"He is the horse of a lifetime and he showed in the Wood he belongs with this group," he said. "He's a better horse now. He's smarter, he has more experience, and he's matured a lot. He just turned 3 last week. And he has shown a lot of improvement. He's doing things to show us he's improving all the time."
Sanchez is well aware of what Social Inclusion is up against taking on California Chrome, but he has a great deal of confidence in his horse.
"The pace wasn't that fast in the Derby, and if Social Inclusion was in the Derby, he would have taken the lead. There will be a faster pace in the Preakness and we'll be on the lead or close to it and make one run. California Chrome is a nice horse, and he won the Derby easily, but I think we have a very good chance to beat him. He got a 97 Beyer (speed figure) in the Derby. We ran a 110 at Gulfstream and a 98 in the Wood. But I have a lot of respect for California Chrome. He proved he's an outstanding horse.
"The (slow) time of the Derby to me doesn't mean anything. He hit the wire first and that's all that matters. It doesn't mean he can't run faster. But this is a better field than the Derby field and California Chrome has to prove again he's the best 3-year-old."
Sanchez has been in racing for 25 years, first in his native Venezuela, and came to the U.S. in 2010, where he started with one claimer named Bulldozer. He quickly built a large operation, stabling horses in New York, Pennsylvania. California, and Florida. He currently has 55 to 65 horses and 10 broodmares. He bought Social Inclusion for $60,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
"I'm lucky to have had success with inexpensive horses," he said.
Despite the big offers, he remains loyal to Azpurua.
"I'm proud to be involved with an old school trainer, and I'm old school. Manny knows this horse and can communicate with him. Even at age 85, he's at the barn every day at 5 a.m. and stays until noon. They're offering a lot of money, but I want to do the best for my horse and the best is to keep with Manny. He knows the horse better than anybody. He uses a lot of herbs and never uses Lasix unless it's absolutely necessary. You should see my vet bill. I have 35 horses with Manny and my vet bill comes out to only $3,000. That means a lot."
As for Pablo Del Monte, he is another who is likely better off having skipped the Derby to wait for the Preakness.
"After conferring with the owners they decided that post 20 would pose a problem getting over to the fence," said trainer Wesley Ward. "That's probably a little too much for the horse to overcome and run his best race.
"He's doing great and I'm really looking forward to this race. It's perfect spacing and he should run his best possible race. We'll have five weeks versus two weeks for California Chrome, so you'd certainly want to be in my position. Jeffrey Sanchez has been getting on him in the morning and he's won a lot of races for me and has won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (with Awesome Feather), and he's a guy I'd like to stay with."
Ward feels that Pablo Del Monte ran a super race in the Blue Grass Stakes, especially the way the track was playing.
"It was a hot sticky day," he said . "He's trained on that track all his life, and when it gets hot it doesn't favor speed horses. No horses went wire to wire that day. He broke a step slowly and battled back a lot of challenges, but he couldn't hold off the two closers who beat him. He ran a very valiant race and I was proud of him."
As for trying to beat California Chrome, he said, "It's a great story and racing needs a story like that now. Art (Sherman) is a great guy; I rode with his son (Alan), so we go back a long ways. They are racetrack people through and through and I can't say enough about them.
"I'm rooting for him and if someone beats me I hope it's him, and if someone beats him I hope it's me. California Chrome is on his game right now and it's certain he's going to run a big race."
But Ward knows he has an improving colt who is just coming into his own.
"He's a liver chestnut with a beautiful copper penny color that's really shining right now. Physically and mentally, it's all coming together. I'm hopeful that if the track is playing for speed he's going to run a very good race."
Ward actually bred Pablo Del Monte at his small ranch in Ocala. He own 22 broodmares.
"To actually have a horse foaled and raised on my place and to get to this place is unbelievable," he said. "It's what every breeder hopes for. The dam's side is made up primarily of sprinters. His dam (One Hot Wish) was wickedly fast and a track record setter at Calder. But (sire) Giant's Causeway can run all day."
Meanwhile California Chrome came out of the Derby in excellent shape and will do a lot of jogging and galloping and schooling at Pimlico.
"We're just letting him be a horse," said trainer Art Sherman. "I'd like to see speed up front, because he likes to have a target. If he's running about fourth early and is fourth down backstretch and has a clear path, you're going to see ol' Chrome perform. When (Espinoza) asks him to run he staggers those horses and opens up five lengths and takes the heart out of them."