Derby138bSo long frostbite, hello sunburn. The long and dreadful winter of 2014 has been survived.

Maybe it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, but it seems like the transition from a blanket of snow to a blanket of roses happened overnight. So consider this your call to the post.

The Kentucky Derby, believe it or not, is two weeks from Saturday.

Forget about Shabazz Napier, Will Gardner and Jordan Spieth. They are old news. This is the name that will dominate local headlines for the next 19 days:

California Chrome.

He is as fast and flashy as his name, a cinch to be made morning line favorite for Derby 140. Be prepared to have an opinion on this copper-colored quadruped. Everyone else will.

California Chrome is one of those Derby horses that people either love or hate, like Bodemeister and Big Brown. Gaudy speed is polarizing. For some odd reason, it offends a certain kind of horse racing fan.

California Chrome | Courtesy of Los Alamitos Racetrack
California Chrome | Courtesy of Los Alamitos Race Course

The speedsters make it look too easy, I guess, and winning the Kentucky Derby is supposed to be hard. A worthy champion eats dirt, bides his time, weaves through traffic and emerges triumphantly from the herd in that final quarter-mile.

Fair enough. That’s often the case. But if it’s going to be the case again this year, the mud-caked victor will have to catch California Chrome to get there.

As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But over the past five weeks, California Chrome has stamped himself as a cut above his fellow 3-year-olds, emphatically winning two marquee Derby preps in fast times by resounding margins.

He won the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes by 7 lengths and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by 5, trouncing the horses ranked fourth (Hoppertunity) and eighth (Candy Boy) in The Courier-Journal’s Derby Ratings. And he earned huge Beyer Speed Figures of 107 in both races, the best back-to-back figs a Derby contender has earned since Big Brown in 2008.

Of the 20 horses penciled in as Derby starters, based on Churchill Downs’ points system, California Chrome is a clear standout on speed and class. That’s not a matter of opinion. That’s a matter of fact.

No rival has earned a Beyer figure greater than 104, and only California Chrome owns more than one figure of 100-plus. As for class, only one other horse owns multiple Grade 1 or Grade 2 wins – Cairo Prince, whose victories came in January and last November.

Not surprisingly, eight of the nine voters in the C-J’s Derby poll rank California Chrome No. 1 on their ballots. (The lone dissenter, Caton Bredar of HRTV and WAVE-3, prefers Cairo Prince.) Yet Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia told the Courier on Saturday, “I don’t think anybody is really sold on California Chrome.”

Maybe Battaglia needs to get out more. Mike Watchmaker and Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form have California Chrome as the 4-1 favorite – half the price of Florida Derby winner Constitution, the second choice at 8-1.

But California Chrome has backed into the favorite’s role to some extent.

The 2-year-old champion, Shared Belief, was sidelined all winter with a bruised foot. The early favorite, Honor Code, was knocked off the Derby trail last month by a minor injury. And Cairo Prince surrendered the favorite’s mantle by following up his romp in the Grade 2 Holy Bull with a dull fourth in the Florida Derby.

Battaglia overstated the case – some handicappers believe California Chrome might be a genuine freak – but skepticism definitely abounds. Rightfully so.

The powerfully built chestnut has yet to race outside of southern California. Most Derby winners are fairly well traveled by this stage. In Louisville, California Chrome will find a different climate, an uncommonly busy barn area and a deeper race track. He might miss the comforts of home.

He also wears blinkers. Most Derby winners do not.

Most Derby winners come from off the pace. California Chrome likes to be on or near the early lead. So do seven or eight other horses in the prospective field. That spells trouble. The speedsters usually goad each other into running suicidal fractions, a scenario that routinely dooms gifted frontrunners on Derby Day.

Most Derby winners are blue bloods from the Bluegrass State. California Chrome was begotten on the left coast. No California-bred has won the Derby since 1962, and pedigree analysts say this one is less likely than most to break the drought. Both of his parents were low-born sprinters.

There is ample reason to take a dim view of California Chrome, particularly at low odds. But each of the reasons above has a counterpoint worth considering.

For example, Silver Charm and Giacomo managed to win the Derby despite racing exclusively in California before shipping to Louisville. And the fact that California Chrome owns wins on three distinctly different race tracks – Santa Anita, Del Mar and the dearly departed Hollywood Park – suggests that he is capable of thriving on any surface.

Secretariat wore blinkers. Animal Kingdom did too.

Pace figures indicate that California Chrome is the “speed of the speed.” He might be able to comfortably outrun his fleet rivals for the early lead.

As for breeding, plenty of recent Derby winners were snubbed by the pedigree snobs, including Smarty Jones, War Emblem, Big Brown, Funny Cide and Real Quiet. Granted, their parents were more distinguished than California Chrome’s, but keep in mind the famous words of the great trainer and breeder John Nerud:

“Don’t tell me who a horse is by. Tell me who he can run by.”

California Chrome has run by every horse he has faced in his last four races – and he’s made it look easy, powerfully accelerating at the top of the stretch and dashing to the wire with his ears flicking to and fro, the sign of a happy horse that isn’t even trying hard.

California Chrome might not wear the roses on May 3, but if he runs his race, it will take a mighty effort to deny him. As Nerud put it, “The one that beats him ain’t gonna enjoy his supper none.”

Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.


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