March 8, 2014 was not the day I thought I’d see the future favorite for the Kentucky Derby run. It was the date of the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and lets just say I was less than excited to see the race. The race featured Midnight Hawk, a horse that interested me none as far as a Kentucky Derby prospect, and Kristo who Midnight Hawk had beaten soundly last time out. There were a few lightly raced horses that were in the race, but none looked the part of a legit prospect. However, there was one horse that stood out like a sore thumb when the wagering opened. California Chrome, a Cal Bred that had finished fifth and sixth in his only two tries against open company was the heavy favorite. I was not a believer that day, and even when he cruised to a seven and a half length victory I was still not a believer.
Fast forward four weeks later. It was Santa Anita Derby day, and the competition was steeper this time. Candy Boy had won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes last time out, and Hoppertunity was the winner of the Rebel Stakes last time out. Surely one of those two horses would be able to tame the hype of this “wanna be” Califorina bred. Not even close! California Chrome crushed Hoppertunity be over five lengths, and made Candy Boy look like a turtle beating him by eight lengths. After a performance like this how could you not be excited about the ability this horse possessed.
So how did this monster come to be? Taking a hard look at his past performances is where the mystery really begins. His two year old season started out innocent enough. He debuted extremely early for a two year, on April 26th in a state bred four and a half furlong maiden special weight race at Hollywood Park. He finished second that day, but was fast closing and showed some ability. Next time out under the same exact conditions he was able to score by two and a half lengths, and went straight to an open company stakes next out but was fifth beaten seven and a quarter lengths. At this point I’m sure many already started to assume this Cal Bred probably wouldn’t cut it against open company. They wheeled him back just fourteen days later in a Cal Bred Stakes and he dominated it winning by almost three lengths. Next up was a try against open company once again in the Del Mar Futurity, and once again it didn’t go so well as he was sixth, beaten by two lengths. Breeders Cup Friday was the next time we’d see him, and once again he was an average at best sixth, beaten this time by Cal Breds. It almost looked as though the horse might be regressing. Little did we know this was the last time we’ve seen him lose.
Decemeber 22, 2013 was the day California Chrome became a man. He was entered in the seven furlong King Glorious Stakes against state bred company, and was a runaway winner by six lengths. Santa Anita was on the schedule next on their all Cal Bred Stakes day, and once again he dominated his local state bred friends. These two races gave us signs of consistency and also a slight increase in speed figures, but it wasn’t a dramatic increase. So how did this horse all of the sudden jump from a Cal Bred winner running in the mid 90’s beyer wise to a open company killer running numbers close to 110? Did the light bulb just come on at the right time? Was it the added distance that he thrived on? Did the Santa Anita dirt track playing to his strengths? The answer to these questions are unclear, but are soon to be answered.
The main mystery for all handicappers this week is if the California golden boy can run outside of his home state. He arrived in Louisville yesterday on a rainy day; something he’s seen very little of his whole life. The Churchill Downs surface is the complete opposite of what he’s been running at Santa Anita. The “Great Race Place” favors speed, but at Churchill Downs the long stretch usually plays to horses from off the pace a bit more. Would it have been wise to bring him in early to get a few works in over the track, or can he adjust to the surface by jogging over it a few times? You can bet his two mile jogs in the morning will be some of the most analyzed light breezes in the history of the Kentucky Derby over the next few days.
Speaking of training…that is another aspect that adds to the mystery of California Chrome. While the “blue bloods” of racing were training their horse under the twin spires of Churchill Downs, at historic Belmont Park, or the plush training centers of Florida, California Chrome was training at Los Alamitos; a track that runs almost all quarter horses. This is not a knock on Los Alamitos, which is gaining steam each and every day, but it’s hardly a place you’d think the favorite for the Kentucky Derby would be training. While the racing media and clockers are picking apart every workout, California Chrome is hiding in the shadows in Los Angeles. Maybe that’s just the way his connections want it. Their blue collar horse doesn’t need the glamour and spot light of Churchill Downs just yet.
Finally, you can’t ignore the incredible story of how California Chrome came to be. Basically two families that didn’t even know each other made a deal to buy the mare Love the Chase for $8,000. Love the Chase would finish last in an $8,000 claimer in the final race of her career so she didn’t look like much of a broodmare prospect. However, after careful studying and looking at nicking patterns she was bred to Lucky Pulpit. Little did they realize that their breeding decision would produce a colt that sparked a six million dollar offer for half-interest before the Santa Anita Derby! At that point it officially became your typical “little guys made it big” type of story. This ownership group also could be set for the next couple of years as well because Love the Chase has had two FULL sisters to California Chrome who are waiting to run.
Regardless of all these mysterious question marks and lucky fortunes, one thing is for sure…you cannot help but root for the horse. His owners are blue collar working class folks. Even their racing stable name is classic. At first glance DAP Stables is a rather boring name, but once you find out that DAP stands for “dumb ass partners” the name becomes hilarious. They got into racing out of pure curiosity, and now they are living the dream. Their story is one all of the “little guys” can rally behind. California Chrome’s trainer is a 35 year veteran who has trained his fair share of good horses, but perhaps never anything close to this. Victor Espinoza, his jockey, has definitely had Triple Crown success, but hasn’t rode a Triple Crown race winner since War Emblem won the Preakness in 2002.
Most times in horse racing these feel good stories fall flat in Kentucky. How many times have we seen “feel good” stories by NBC on Derby day, only to watch as their horses finish in the middle of the pack. Many dreams have died on the first Saturday in May, but perhaps this one is different. Maybe California Chrome is that special kind of horse that will finally give horse racing fans something we’ve been waiting a long time to see: A Triple Crown.