One morning last week, Sherman, an impish 77 years old, leaned against a white-railed fence outside a horse barn at Pimlico Race Course. “That Secretariat, what a great horse he was,” he said. “I remember watching him run. All these years I’m thinking, I wonder if I’ll ever have a horse like that.” In the early morning light, Sherman shoved his hands a little deeper into the pockets of his green windbreaker, and looked over the top of his eyeglasses. “Well now,” he said, “maybe I do.” And then he smiled his little crooked smile, full of the impossible.
[Exercise rider Willie] Delgado said California Chrome seemed to prefer the dirt at Pimlico to that at Churchill Downs. “Churchill wasn’t one of his favorite tracks,” he said. “He just tolerated it.”
California Chrome wasn’t drawing raves for the way he went over Churchill’s surface before the Derby — “not the prettiest mover,” observed Mike Welsch, “Jay Privman said he’s certainly looked better back west” — so it’s interesting to see him praised for how he’s handling Pimlico.
Apparently, he’s also feeling fresh (PDF):
California Chrome … didn’t seem to appreciate being shut down for the day after passing a “Sunrise at Old Hilltop” group near the wire after jogging an easy mile. “Settle down … settle down … settle down,” Delgado calmly asked of his charge as he began applying the brakes.
And holding his weight: Trainer Art Sherman estimates that California Chrome “has put on about 35 pounds since winning the Derby,” tweets Claire Novak.
It’s all looking good for Saturday …
5/15/14 Addendum: What’s this? Chrome coughs; his people say he’s fine.
Days before the 140th Kentucky Derby was run, Steve Coburn, the co-owner and breeder of California Chrome, made a prediction: “With a good break and a clean trip,” he said, “I think it’s a done deal.”
What was brash on Wednesday became fact on Saturday, as the Derby field rounded the stretch turn and the 5-2 post-time favorite put his head in front and then began to draw away. He got a clean break. He got a clean trip. (The same can’t be said of several other Derby starters.) He even got a reasonable pace to rate off when Uncle Sigh, wearing blinkers for the first time, took the early lead from Chitu and ran the first three-quarters in 1:11.80 (chart).
What he didn’t get was a triple-digit Beyer speed figure for winning the Derby. With a final time of 2:03.66, California Chrome was given a 97, “the lowest for any Derby or Preakness winner since Andrew Beyer has been making figures,” tweeted Randy Moss. His TimeformUS figure also came up slow — chief figuremaker Craig Milkowski gave him a preliminary 104. Both numbers are well off his previous 108 Beyer and 113 TFUS highs. [5/5/14 Update: TFUS has since revised his Derby figure to 110.]
Maybe that the Derby came up slow is part of a trend toward lower figures in classic races, but it was more likely a strong wind. Gene Kershner notes:
[There] was a fairly strong headwind going against the runners down the stretch, which when counting the first run to the clubhouse turn is approximately 40% of the race running …
… appeared much drier than for early races and may not have been as well watered as it had been earlier in the day. There was a gap of 2 hours, 43 minutes from the preceding dirt race, the Churchill Downs Stakes.
The Derby fractions from DRF Formulator are interesting:
Runner-up Commanding Curve and seventh-place finisher Ride on Curlin are the only two running sub :26 final quarters, despite the moderate early pace. It’d be easy to be disappointed by California Chrome’s closing :26.21, except the fraction doesn’t match the visual. Watching the replay, he accelerates to take the lead at the top of the stretch, then jockey Victor Espinoza eases up (and puts away his whip) in what looks like a comfortable final sixteenth:
It was an utterly dominant performance not accurately measured by the final margin; California Chrome drew out to a five-length lead with less than an eighth of a mile to run before jockey Victory Espinoza geared him down, rising in the irons two strides before the wire and waving his crop in the air, much as he had done aboard War Emblem 12 years ago.
Going into the Preakness, there’s a case to be made that California Chrome comes out of the Derby a more formidable contender for the second leg of the Triple Crown in two weeks — after his big efforts winning the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby wasn’t a peak performance, at least as expressed in figures. Maybe it didn’t need to be.
Much will depend on how the colt does over the next two weeks and who shows up at Pimlico. Trainer Art Sherman said on Sunday that California Chrome came out of the Derby in good shape, although he did leave a “handful” of grain in his feed tub and that, “He got a little tired, but not too bad.” Alicia Wincze reports his condition as “feisty” this morning.
The Derby winner will stay at Churchill Downs for a few days before heading to Baltimore. His schedule won’t be taxing. “We can light train him over here for a couple of days, kind of just jog him,” Sherman tells Jennie Rees.
Coburn is already looking ahead, past the Preakness, to the Belmont Stakes, his confidence confirmed. California Chrome was the first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962. “When he wins the Triple Crown,” said Coburn, “he’ll be the first California-bred to do it.”
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About those bad trips … Candy Boy was hard checked on the first turn after fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong crossed his path. Rider Gary Stevens was none too happy after the race, as quoted by the Churchill Downs press office:
“I had a horrible trip. On the first turn Rajiv Maragh came over on Wicked Strong and shut me off. Then he shut [Corey] Nakatani off, causing me to steady again. We’re both lucky we didn’t fall.”
Nakatani was on Dance with Fate, who recovered enough to finish sixth. Candy Boy was 13th; the race is a throw-out for him, whenever he starts next.
Third-place finisher Danza also interfered with Medal Count, veering into his path in the stretch. Sid Fernando helpfully illustrates.
The Horse of the Year is set to make his first start of 2014 today, and:
“If he is going to be vulnerable, this is it because the others that are in there have been running,” [trainer Charlie] LoPresti said.
True, but he’s also a returning champion. The odds are good that he’ll win. In 2010, I found that returning champions beat the winning favorites average by a significant margin when they made their first starts of a new season.
The stats for returning champions are now updated through 2012: You can view the numbers and complete spreadsheet via Raceday 360. There are a couple of changes in this year’s version: I restricted the data to only starts made in North American races with wagering (horses who returned in non-wagering exhibition races and foreign races were excluded, as were steeplechase champions). I also broke out the numbers by division and decade this year, as well as by class, which revealed a few interesting tidbits.
One thing I left out of the R360 post, but wanted to make note of, is that all champions, not only the favored, won or finished in the money in 186 out of 228 races (or 82% of starts). Be sure to include them in your exotics.
The original data, including all champions named from 1971-2012, and not only those who returned to race, can be downloaded as an Excel file.
4/12/14 Update: And Wise Dan wins the Maker’s 46 Mile by three-quarters of a length over Kaigun. Here’s the returning Horse of the Year chart, updated:
That brings the returning HOTY record to 18 wins from 23 starts (18 wins from 22 favored), for a total payout of $49.10 on $46 bet.
Favorites won 32 percent (38-120) of races in the sample, a figure comparable to the record of racing favorites in general. The fact that BC fields are considerably larger than average may make the 32 percent strike rate higher than expected.
Favorites have had mixed success finishing in the money in the recent years. In 2012, favorites finished in the top three in five of six races on Friday, six of nine on Saturday. In 2011, three of six on Friday, four of nine on Saturday. In 2010, four of six on Friday, four of eight on Saturday.
10/26/13 Addendum: Breeders’ Cup contenders, by the numbers. “There are 121 group or graded stakes winners in the entries, including 71 winners of Group 1 or Grade 1 races.” And 74 of the 172 pre-entries won their last starts.