Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Regardless of what happens in Saturday's Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, California Chrome will be the Kentucky Derby favorite after his scintillating performance in the Santa Anita Derby.
California Chrome won for the fourth consecutive time with a 5 1/4-length score over Hoppertunity last Saturday at Santa Anita. It is surprising that the margin of victory was the smallest of the four, but it could have been a lot more if jockey Victor Espinoza pressured the son of Lucky Pulpit to run faster inside the final furlong. Still, the colt ran that eighth of a mile in 12 2/5 seconds, which is the fastest of all the Kentucky Derby contenders to date.
The chestnut colt is by far and away the class of the 2014 3-year-old crop, so much so that the rest of the Kentucky Derby field (outside Bayern if he qualifies) will be running for second place.
History is also behind the homebred. His trainer, Art Sherman, was the exercise rider for the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. In addition, California Chrome has a lot in common with some of the top California 3-year- olds of years past.
Consider this: 11 other horses since 1988 have run the Santa Anita Derby faster than 1 minutes, 48 seconds. One was injured (Larry the Legend) and failed to make the Kentucky Derby. Five of the other 10 (Winning Colors, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and I'll Have Another) won the Run for the Roses Three others finished third (Point Given, Free House and Indian Charlie). The latter two could not even win the Kentucky Derby because they were beaten by the aforementioned Silver Charm and Real Quiet.
Only two of the 10 (Creative Cause and Blueskiesnrainbows) ran off the board, and once again, they would not have won the Kentucky Derby since both finished behind the winner, I'll Have Another.
The only questions for California Chrome to answer going into the Kentucky Derby are: 1. what post position will he draw, 2. how will he break from the gate, 3. how will Espinoza rate him off what should be a quick pace, and 4. how will he handle the Churchill Downs surface?
Here are possible answers to the four questions. First, as long as California Chrome doesn't break from the rail or even the No. 2 post position, he should be in good shape.
Second, he has a tendency to be flat-footed out of the gate (three of his last five starts), so this aspect of the race is crucial. On the other hand, he jogged to victory in two of those, so he has the ability to overcome these issues.
The third query is the key to the race. If Espinoza cannot rate him at least two lengths off the lead approaching the backstretch, then it is doubtful California Chrome will win. The last time a horse won the Derby closer than two lengths from the front after the first half-mile was back in 2002, ironically with Espinoza on top of War Emblem. The big difference is these 3- year-olds will not go 47 flat for the half as War Emblem did. Don't forget, the last two runnings witnessed consecutive 45 1/5 first half-miles.
The final question should not pose any problem considering the last four Kentucky Derby winners that raced in only one state prior to the Derby all came from California. Those four were Giacomo, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence and Ferdinand.
It appears California Chrome might have only one challenger in the Kentucky Derby, and if that horse fails to finish first or second in the upcoming Arkansas Derby, then it is almost a given the California-bred will stroll into the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May.
BAYERN VS. TAPITURE AT OAKLAWN PARK
Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times but not since 2002. He came close two years ago with Bodemeister, who ran second in his fifth career start. Bodemeister, the 4-1 Kentucky Derby favorite, rolled to victory in the Arkansas Derby by 9 1/2 lengths in his final prep for the Run for the Roses.
This year, Baffert has another lightly raced colt ready to run in the Arkansas Derby. Bayern, a son of Offlee Wild, is undefeated in two starts, including a 15-length allowance score in his last start back on Feb. 13. Unfortunately, the horse bruised his foot prior to the San Felipe and had to scratch. Since then, he's worked four times with the last coming on April 6, a devastating 7- furlong, 1:23 4/5 gate work.
The two main knocks on Bayern are: he did not start as a 2-year-old and he will go into the Kentucky Derby (if he qualifies) with just three career starts.
Since 1994, there have been 17 horses without a start as 2-year-olds to race in the Kentucky Derby. Six trained in California and 11 prepped outside the Golden State. Of those 11, just one hit the board (Curlin) and only one other finished fourth (Pulpit). Of the six that trained in California, two finished second (Bodemeister and Strodes Creek) and one ran fourth (Atswhatimtalknbout).
As for horses coming into the Kentucky Derby with three lifetime starts, there have been five since 2000 with one win (Big Brown) and one third (Curlin). Not a bad percentage when all is said and done.
The one difference between Bodemeister and Bayern coming into the Arkansas Derby is that the former ran against second-rate colts at Oaklawn Park while Bayern has to face some well-seasoned horses, including Tapiture, the winner of the Southwest Stakes and, most recently, a close second behind Hoppertunity in the Rebel Stakes, Ride On Curlin, third in those two races, Strong Mandate, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Commissioner, third in the Sunland Derby and a three-time participant in 1 1/8-mile races.
Tapiture, the 9-5 morning line favorite, will be ridden by Joel Rosario, who rode Orb to victory in last year's Kentucky Derby. Rosario replaces Ricardo Santana Jr. after the disappointing finish in the Rebel. The Steve Asmussen- trained 3-year-old is as game as they come and should be fit for the Arkansas Derby after a bullet 5-furlong work (uncharacteristic of Asmussen horses) on March 31.
Ride On Curlin and Strong Mandate are a step below Tapiture and won't be factors inside the final furlong. However, the pair should pressure the early pace set by Danza and Thundergram, and maybe Bayern if that colt cannot be rated.
Commissioner has a very good chance of picking up the pieces if they go too fast too early. He closed for third in the Sunland Derby with a 12 3/5 final eighth and also has a victory over Top Billing at the distance.
One colt to keep an eye on is Conquest Titan. Calvin Borel picks up the mount on a colt that can close with the best of them. He defeated General a Rod in an allowance race at Churchill Downs in late December and then closed for second in the Holy Bull. Conquest Titan did not show his usual closing kick in the Tampa Bay Derby, but he's been training smartly for this and could surprise.
In the end, if Bayern is 100 percent healthy, he should sit outside the speed and then challenge Tapiture through the stretch before holding off the late- closing Conquest Titan by three lengths. After that, it's on to the Churchill Downs, where he will give California Chrome a solid challenger in the 140th Kentucky Derby.
Arkansas Derby - 1) Bayern, 2) Conquest Titan, 3)Tapiture
THE JEFF FRANK "DIRTY DOZEN"
1) California Chrome - Will be the lowest-priced Derby favorite in six years
2) Bayern - The only true challenger providing he wins the Arkansas Derby
3) Hoppertunity - Ran extremely well in SA Derby; will get plenty of support
4) Candy Boy - Must relax early in Kentucky Derby; if he does, he will surprise
5) Wicked Strong - Bounced back in Wood Memorial; possible second choice
6) Constitution - Has done nothing wrong, but Pletcher's Derby record is poor
7) Conquest Titan - Needs a huge effort in Arkansas to qualify for Ky Derby
8) Tapiture - A tenacious fighter that is not bred to win at 1 1/4 miles
9) Chitu - On the improve but another one that will not get the distance
10) Intense Holiday - Throw out the Louisiana Derby and he doesn't look bad
11) General a Rod - Needs to sit farther back to be more effective
12) Samraat - Can't fault his Wood, but he's not as good as those above