Kentucky Derby Preview: Bring it Home, Chrome
Let Art Sherman write the story for you.
"We need heroes right now, and I'm hoping he's one of them," the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome said his first morning at Churchill Downs while reporters circled, the cameras rolled, and his flashy chestnut colt became the talk of the backstretch.
Here was Sherman, once the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps and a 60-year veteran of the sport, standing up on a mounting block to address the scrum—funny how life comes around. And here was California Chrome, handling his first cross-country trip with his usual intelligence, about to be installed as the 5-2 favorite in a 19-horse field.
"All the years you put into this game, this would just be a dream come true to win," Sherman said. "But at the same time I'm very satisfied with my career. I never made it in the big, big horses, but I've won a lot of graded stakes, always had fun, a lot of great owners, a lot of great people. I look at the young people coming in and I hope they have as good a time as I've had.
"This horse is my California rock star. I'm just his manager. As a 3-year-old he has been getting better and better. Even though it was a little bit closer than I like to run them—I like to give them about seven weeks (between races)—I'll tell you, he's a different horse right now and he's touting me, so I said, 'Hey, let's go.' So far, he hasn't proved me wrong."
If ever a runner rolled up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in an effortless manner through recent races, it has been California Chrome. He galloped to victory by a combined 24 1/4-length margin in his past four starts, acing the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by 5 1/4 last time out under regular rider Victor Espinoza, then took his first airplane ride aboard Tex Sutton's "Air Horse One" for a chance at fate.
But questions abound for the modestly-bred son of California stallion Lucky Pulpit whose working-man breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, turned down an offer of $6 million for 51% interest in him before the race. A forwardly placed speedster, will he handle the quicker pace of the Derby? Generally clear by the time he hits the stretch, could he look another rival in the eye for a dogfight to the line?
Some wonder how the competition California Chrome has faced on the West Coast measures up to that faced by others that have prepped in the East —like TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong and runner-up Samraat—or those who came through the Oaklawn Park series like Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Danza and runner-up Ride On Curlin. Others are critical of the way he has trained over the Churchill surface since his final work at Los Alamitos and his arrival in Louisville. And then there's the question all Derby horses face—the 1 1/4-mile distance and cavalry charge leading into that tricky first turn.
"I think if you're a numbers person, you're going to have to like that horse," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who does not have a contender in this year's race but is more than happy to opine about the chances of others. "But when you throw him in there, even as dominant as he has been in his races and everything, give him (18) other horses to look at with everybody riding a little more aggressive on a strange track going a distance he has never run, it really changes the game."
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners' Danza has been a buzz horse in the mornings, training powerfully over the Churchill track since his breakthrough victory in the April 12 Arkansas Derby at odds of 41-1 for trainer Todd Pletcher. The Street Boss colt was named after actor Tony Danza's long-running TV show "Who's the Boss?" and is one of four contenders sent out by Pletcher's mega-stable.
Pletcher also has Starlight Racing's Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) winner Intense Holiday, a son of Harlan's Holiday who was second in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) to Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Vicar's in Trouble in his last start. Intense Holiday blazed through the most visually impressive work of Derby week, getting four furlongs in :48 3/5 under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez April 27, out five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 and six furlongs in 1:16 4/5. The colt's Derby stock rose dramatically after he easily separated himself from his workmate, the Ramseys' Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes (gr. III) winner We Miss Artie, by Artie Schiller .
"I would classify this as the best work I've seen from him," Pletcher said after Intense Holiday's move. "He always trains well and it's normal for him to breeze well, but that was exceptionally good this morning."
Pletcher, who won the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver in 2010, will send out WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing's Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. II) winner Vinceremos as well. The Pioneerof the Nile colt must return to better form following a 14th-place finish in the April 12 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on the Polytrack at Keeneland.
California shipper Dance With Fate won that race and did so impressively for trainer Peter Eurton, but has always presented better form on synthetic tracks. His Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) run on dirt resulted in an eighth-place finish after getting pinched at the break, but other than that and a learning excursion first time out, the Two Step Salsa runner has won or placed in his other six races for a partnership group that includes Sharon Alesia, Bran Jam Stable, and Ciaglia Racing.
Spendthrift Farm's Medal Count is another who has versatile form over multiple surfaces and seems to be relishing the Churchill track. Trainer Dale Romans took an unsual path with the son of Dynaformer after he won the April 4 off-the-turf Transylvania Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland with a sharp rail-skimming late move; he wheeled Medal Count back into the April 12 Blue Grass, in which he finished a good second to earn his way into the Derby field.
On dirt, Medal Count has only an 11th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and a fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, but he has been training powerfully in the mornings leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
Romans said he has never run a horse back so quickly at this level, but "you have to remember, all horses are horses; it doesn't matter what level. He improved from one race to the next. I think he's a horse that improves with work. He's doing super; I'm not even stressing about him, he's doing so well."
Three horses enter the Kentucky Derby off efforts in the Wood Memorial—Hard Spun winner Wicked Strong for trainer Jimmy Jerkens and Centennial Farm; Len Riggio's previously undefeated New York-bred Samraat, the Noble Causeway colt who finished 3 1/2 lengths back for trainer Rick Violette; and fifth-place finisher Uncle Sigh, another New York-bred by Indian Charlie who races for Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson. Chip McEwen of Wounded Warrior donates 10% of his horses' earnings to organizations that support veterans.
Jose Ortiz, who rides Uncle Sigh, and his brother Irad Ortiz Jr., who has the mount on Samraat, will be the first brothers to ride in the Derby since 1984, when Eddie and Sam Maple went together to the post.
Uncle Sigh and Samraat thrilled crowds in the early 3-year-old preps with their furious battles down to the line in the Withers Stakes gr. III) and Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct Racetrack. Meanwhile in Florida, Honors Racing Stable Corp's Wildcat Red and General a Rod hooked up for battles in the Gulfstream Park Derby, Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (gr. II), and Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I).
Wildcat Red, by D'wildcat , emerged on the winning side in the Fountain of Youth for Venezeulan trainer Jose Garoffalo after taking the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) sprinting. General a Rod took the Gulfstream Park Derby and was second in the Fountain of Youth, then settled for third in the Florida Derby.
Joel Rosario, last year's Kentucky Derby-winning jockey, gets the mount on Mike Maker trainee General a Rod, a son of Roman Ruler who was purchased by Starlight and Skychai Racing from Jose Rodriguez in the week before the Derby.
Daniel Dougherty's Ride On Curlin continuously hits the board; he's a $25,000 purchase and one of three horses trained by "Bronco" Billy Gowan. The Curlin colt ran 4 3/4 lengths behind Danza in Arkansas, and was third in both the Rebel (gr. II) and Southwest (gr. III) stakes.
As a 2-year-old he turned in third-place efforts in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill and the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park after a fourth-place finish in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill off a 7 3/4-length Ellis Park maiden win. Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel has the mount.
C R K Stable's Candy Boy has also been a consistent performer, and comes in off a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby for trainer John Sadler. The Candy Ride colt won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) with a good three-wide bid late, and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in pursuit of his fourth Kentucky Derby win.
Tapiture, trained by the embattled Steve Asmussen for Winchell Thoroughbreds, had been higher-regarded with his easy Southwest Stakes score earlier this season and a previous romp in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) at Churchill as a 2-year-old. But the Tapit runner's odds climbed slightly after a runner-up finish in the Rebel Stakes and a lackluster fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Asmussen is under investigation for allegations of animal abuse and improper conduct from the watchdog group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has one starter, Tanma Corp's Sunland Derby (gr. III) winner Chitu, after the late defection of Rebel winner Hoppertunity due to a foot issue. Also-Eligible Pablo Del Monte also opted not to run, setting the field at 19.
Listed at 50-1 are Spiral runner-up Harry's Holiday, trained by Maker for Skychai Racing and partners, and West Point Thoroughbreds' Commanding Curve, third in the Louisiana Derby for Dallas Stewart last time out. But when the Derby gates open at approximately 6:24 p.m. EDT, everyone has a shot.
"When look at the chart the day after, you say, 'Wow, how could this happen?' " Lukas said. "Down through the years I've always been amazed. I think this year it's probably more upside-down than ever."
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