It’s hard to believe just two short years ago California Chrome was bursting onto the national horse racing scene with a massive win in the San Felipe Stakes. The San Felipe Stake catapulted Chrome into the Kentucky Derby picture, and when he repeated that same type of effort in the Santa Anita Derby he stamped himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite. The rest as they say is history! Fast forward two years later and California Chrome is still in the headlines only now he’s trying to win the Dubai World Cup, and become the richest race horse in American racing history. However, back home in the States we have another California bred who’s eyeing the Kentucky Derby. Smokey Image looks to do just what California Chrome did two years ago…win the San Felipe Stakes! This years crop is a lot like the crop in 2014 as no horse is overwhelming us at the moment. Chrome took full advantage of that in 2014, and now Smokey Image can do that exact same thing this year.
Six races…six wins! It doesn’t get much better than that, and even though all of Smokey Image’s wins have come against state bred company he has still shown an amazing amount of talent. Yes he hasn’t beaten much, however he has done it so easily so far. Last time out in the California Cup Derby he was supposed to be “tested” going around two turns for the first time, but instead he turned the race into a complete laugher. After setting a moderate pace he cruised home to an eight length victory under wraps. His beyer speed figure did come back low for that race, but as Santa Anita morning line maker Jon White has mentioned several times there really should be a “+ system” added to beyers where horses clearly do not extend himself. In all actuality his Cal Cup Derby was very similar to that of California Chrome’s in 2014.
It’s hard to look at one of these two California breds without thinking of the other. For starters these two horse actually look a lot alike…and they also share the same style of running. Both are chestnut and both like to go towards the front of the pack. Then there is Victor Espinoza. Of course Espinoza is the regular rider of California Chrome, and also the rider of Smokey Image. Espinoza has been coy about not trying to compare the two, but has mentioned the fact that Smokey Image is getting better with every race. Carla Gaines trains Smokey Image, and much like Art Sherman she’s been around for awhile but is not what you would call a high profile name. Also as mentioned before the crops these two are up against are similar. Most of the good horses in California Chrome’s crop missed the Derby due to injuries, and this year the crop has more question marks than answer up to this point. However, one aspect they are different on is pedigree which might actually benefit Smokey Image. California Chrome doesn’t have a strong distance pedigree, while Smokey Image from a pedigree standpoint should like longer distances. Of course talent level is still up in the air, but the similarities of the two certainly make it exciting.
This year the San Felipe came up as tough as I can remember. Three of our top five Kentucky Derby horses are entered in the race, and also our thirteenth ranked horse is entered as well. That’s more ranked horses in one race than any other prep that has been ran all season, and if one of the four could put up a nice performance you could see a new number one prospect. With all the fire power in the race Smokey Image may only be the third choice in the wagering at post time. The highly touted Bob Baffert trainee Mor Spirit is your most likely favorite, with Exaggerator being a strong candidate for second favorite. Both of those horses have suffered defeat, but they also have earned victories over graded stakes company. This is in no way an easy spot…if Smokey Image can pull off the victory there will be no doubting his legitimacy.
One advantage California Chrome had in his running of the San Felipe was a very weak field. As previously mentioned this years running of the race is anything but weak, however the 2014 version was embarrassingly bad. Midnight Hawk was Chrome’s main challenger and he left a lot to be desired. The race was so bad that a 4 for 8 horse with wins only against state bred competition went off as the 7/5 favorite. That horse of course was California Chrome. I would venture to say California Chrome’s pre San Felipe resume was average at best, and if he had that same resume heading into this years running he would probably be the third choice in the betting behind Exaggerator and Mor Spirit. So California Chorme’s path was definitely easier, but of course knowing what we know now it wouldn’t have mattered.
Saturday’s showdown will definitely have the horse racing world’s attention. Without the success of California Chrome perhaps we wouldn’t even be talking about Smokey Image, but Chrome has set the standard for California bred horses. Smokey Image may not live up to that standard…or he may become the next California bred to win the Kentucky Derby. Much like California Chrome this race could be all or nothing for Smokey Image. Run well and continue down the path to the Kentucky Derby. Run poorly and the dream is dead. The stakes couldn’t be higher this time of year which is what makes this Triple Crown season so special. Saturday will tell us all we need to know.