California Chrome | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs and Benoit
California Chrome | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs and Benoit

An old English professor used to say that James Joyce was the Mount Everest of English literature. The writers who followed had only two choices, climb over or go around. The wise ones went around.

California Chrome is the James Joyce of this year’s Kentucky Derby. He might not be insurmountable, but the road to the winner’s circle runs directly through the handsome chestnut with the homely pedigree.

He puts bettors in a predicament. Toss him or embrace him?

California Chrome is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, and a smart player’s first instinct is to beat a horse offered at such short odds. It’s fun to be a contrarian, but it’s not always profitable. Ask those who bet against Smarty Jones at 4-1 or Fusaichi Pegasus and Big Brown at 5-2.

Then again, those who spurned Point Given (9-5), Empire Maker (5-2) and Friesan Fire (4-1) were rewarded for swimming against the tide.

There is a yin to every yang regarding California Chrome, but this much is certain: If he can duplicate his recent form on Saturday, he’ll be extremely hard to beat.

This is an unusually gifted animal. He can sustain a high cruising speed then suddenly accelerate, or “re-break,” on the home turn. He is a jet with afterburners.

California Chrome has annihilated his competition since December, winning four consecutive races by an average of six lengths each. And he has done it easily.

Perhaps too easily.

“He is definitely the horse to beat,” Santa Anita Park oddsmaker Jon White told the “Night School” class at HorsePlayerNow.com on Tuesday. “On the other hand, he’s kind of had things his own way, especially in his last couple of races at Santa Anita, on a track that was playing to his running style.”

There is no primrose path to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. The Kentucky Derby is an extra-long race with an extra-large field staged before an extra-large, extra-loud crowd. No horse wins without conquering some adversity.

Speedy horses like California Chrome can make their own luck by staking out a position in front of the thundering herd. No traffic problems. No taking the long way around.

But here’s the yang: In most Derbys, the early leaders must run extremely fast to earn those vital advantages. Most are rubber-legged and wheezing before they pass the quarter pole.

As usual, this Derby field boasts an abundance of early speed. History says those horses will goad each other into cutting a suicidal pace. Trainer Art Sherman says California Chrome will let his hell-bent rivals fly by and lay fourth or fifth in the first ½-mile.

That would be ideal. It would also be unusual.

Very few horses are able to change their running style in the Kentucky Derby. California Chrome runs best when he’s within spitting distance of the early lead. He is physically and mentally habituated to get out and go. Can he suddenly chill out, take back and eat dirt in the most frenzied environment he has ever experienced?

Workout analyst Bruno De Julio thinks not.

“He’s one dimensional,” De Julio said. “If he doesn’t get the lead, he’s not the same horse. Anytime he’s behind horses, his entire personality changes.”

De Julio says California Chrome is an aggressive horse under the best of circumstances. If things don’t go his way, he gets combative, claustrophobic and confused.

“If he was a person, he wouldn’t do well at parties,” De Julio said. “In the Del Mar Futurity, he tried to take a bite out of a horse.”

The Del Mar Futurity was last September, when California Chrome was still a green 2-year-old. But when De Julio reviewed videos of the colt’s recent works, he saw an animal that is still edgy and distracted.

“He has his ears pricked the entire time, straight up in the air,” De Julio said. “That usually means they want to jump at something or they are alarmed. Think about your dog if you have one. When your dog is sitting there with his ears pricked straight up, he sees something that alarms him.”

Hypervigilant horses can “burn out emotionally in the Kentucky Derby,” equine behavioralist Kerry Thomas says. When a horse is alert but relaxed, he maintains forward motion while his ears rotate back and forth, searching for cues from his environment and his rider. This uncommon ability to multitask is a common denominator among Derby winners. Identifying that ability allowed Thomas to pick the last three Derby winners, two of which were longshots.

While romping to easy wins in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome used his speed to simplify the mental aspects of both races. He sprinted straight to the lead, engaged only one horse in close quarters, then dusted the field by hitting the afterburners at the top of the stretch.

imagesCalifornia Chrome must follow the same script on Saturday. It won’t be easy. He is flanked on both sides by other speedsters, and they aren’t the faint-hearted type.

Still, California Chrome must take the fight to his rivals. He is a leader, not a follower. Like De Julio, Thomas says California Chrome is uncomfortable in a crowd. That can be a serious character flaw in the Kentucky Derby.

A 20-horse field packed with the best 3-year-olds in training creates a contentious, chaotic environment that tests even the coolest temperaments. De Julio compares it to driving a car.

“If you’ve got eight cars around you, you’ve got to keep an eye on everything,” he said. “Some people get real nervous. If you’re driving in no traffic with just one car in front of you, you can relax and let your hair down a little bit.”

California Chrome would be a teeth-gnashing, horn-blowing, bird-flipping maniac at rush hour. He needs to steer clear of traffic at all costs.

Yet Sherman says California Chrome is a “laid back colt.” He believes his star can calmly maneuver through the field and unleash his powerful kick at crunch time. Perhaps. But there are other reasons to be skeptical of the Derby favorite.

California Chrome arrived on Monday and won’t have an official work at Churchill Downs before the race. Since 1996, 50 horses did the same. Only three managed a top-four finish. Oddly, all three won: Funny Cide, Giacomo and I’ll Have Another.

Nine flopped at single-digit odds: Goldencents, Itsmyluckyday, Gemologist, Dialed In, Dunkirk, Scat Daddy, Point Determined, Tapit and Johannesburg.

What’s more, with 10 career starts, California Chrome is more heavily raced than most Derby horses these days. Mine That Bird is the only Derby winner since 2000 that entered the race with more than seven starts. He had eight.

Since 2009, six Derby entrants had 10 or more starts. All six stunk it up, earning Thoro-Graph speed figures that were at least eight lengths slower than their career-best.

However, Thomas considers California Chrome’s experience to be a strength.

“California Chrome is a horse at the apex of his development,” Thomas wrote in his excellent “Patterns of Motion Analysis” for Derby 140. “He has learned his game and honed his tactics. He is much farther down the road in the development of his pattern of motion than most 3-year-olds at this time of year.”

Many smart handicappers, including Dick Jerardi of Daily Racing Form, believe California Chrome is a special talent and the normal rules do not apply. I have sufficient respect for their opinions – and for the colt’s overpowering performances of late – to resist the temptation to toss the SoCal superhorse because he is a short price.

His talent is too formidable to ignore, yet his flaws make him far from a sure thing. He is hard to go over and impossible to go around.

Proceed with caution.

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Mark Coomes
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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