04/06/2014 12:04PM

California Chrome, and Other Notes


Clarity. It’s a word you see invoked often during every Triple Crown prep season, more as a plea than anything else.

Well, in the 1:47.52 it took him to dominate Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome provided all the Triple Crown prep clarity anyone could reasonably ask for.

With all due respect to the other final Kentucky Derby prep winners we have seen already, and to those still to come next Saturday, there is absolutely no question that California Chrome is the best horse going into this Kentucky Derby, and the one to beat. His 5 1/4-length tour de force Saturday along with his 7 1/4-length romp in the San Felipe last month, both of which were accomplished with him having to do less than his best, make for a combination that none of California Chrome’s contemporaries can, or will, be able to match in this Derby.

That said, even if California Chrome is certainly the most likely winner of the Kentucky Derby, that doesn’t mean he has to win. His edge on pure ability, his sharpness of current form, and his versatility in terms of running style give him a greater margin for error than anyone else, meaning that if he encounters adversity, he has a better chance than anyone to overcome it.

Unfortunately, 20-horse (or close to it) Kentucky Derby fields create a wildcard factor not befitting North America’s most popular horse race. If California Chrome breaks a half-step slow like he did in the Santa Anita Derby, he might suddenly find, unlike on Saturday, the door slammed shut on him. In about the time it takes to say “mint juleps taste like cough syrup,” California Chrome might find himself in the completely unfamiliar position of about 12th, and about 10 lengths off the lead. Or if California Chrome breaks like a rocket at Churchill like he did in the San Felipe, with all the other speed eyeing this Derby, he could find himself carried along on a pace much too fast for his own good. As we know all too well, the best horse doesn’t always win.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We ask for clarity, so when it comes, we should acknowledge it. California Chrome is THE horse going into this Kentucky Derby. It’s as clear as day.

Other Saturday notes:

I liked Wicked Strong’s victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. A lot. You could see Wicked Strong was on his game Saturday as early as into the backstretch as he was closer up than usual, and I was taken with how strongly he ran though the wire. Wicked Strong has gotten good at the right time, and he seems like a lock to handle the additional furlong in Louisville, and a hot, contested Derby pace will only play to his strength.

Samraat and Social Inclusion were both game finishing second and third in the Wood, and Uncle Sigh’s fifth in the Wood was better than it looks on paper as he missed the break and had no kind of trip. I’m not sure any of these three are true 10-furlong horses, but they are nice colts.

It might be the best thing that ever could happen to Social Inclusion if he was excluded from the Derby on points. With now only three career starts, the first of which came in late February, Social Inclusion is just not ready for something like the Derby. Saturday was nice but cool at Aqueduct, and yet Social Inclusion was washed out going into the gate. If he can get rattled in front of 12,000 people at Aqueduct, what will happen to him in front of 150,000 people at Churchill?

As noted, California Chrome didn’t have to do his best Saturday. And though I don’t think he’s a match for California Chrome, at least right now, I do think Hoppertunity has more to him than his second in the Santa Anita Derby might say at face value. Hoppertunity was already safely in the Kentucky Derby on points, and after shipping out of town twice already this year, it does seem he stayed home and used the Santa Anita Derby as a prep in the purest sense of the term.

Yes, he hesitated a bit at the start, and he was wrapped up on when it was clear he wasn’t going to win, but Ring Weekend’s distant second in the ungraded Calder Derby isn’t the way you would want to go on to the Kentucky Derby. But Ring Weekend is safely in the Derby field on the points he earned winning the Tampa Bay Derby.

I picked against Fashion Plate in the Santa Anita Oaks because I thought she would be 4-5. I thought Fashion Plate would be odds-on due to the fact that she was going to be in complete control of an uncontested pace, and was 2 for 2 since moving to dirt, and I try to avoid picking odds-on horses except in special circumstances. I could not believe it when Fashion Plate instead went off at 2-1, and Ria Antonia was bet down for some reason to favorite at 6-5. Fashion Plate, now a totally unexpected and huge overlay, parlayed her expected easy lead into victory.

My Miss Sophia, stepping up off of only a maiden victory, albeit an impressive one, figured to get loose early in Aqueduct’s Gazelle and command an easy lead. She did, and turned the Gazelle into a rout. And in contrast to Fashion Plate, My Miss Sophia was hammered down to 4-5.

Nice race between Room Service and Rosalind in Keeneland’s Ashland, so nice that even the photo finish camera couldn’t separate them. But both were assisted by an anticipated pace meltdown. And as a prep for the Kentucky Oaks, it looks like Rosalind is the one best prepared to carry the torch. Room Service has never raced on dirt. Rosalind finished third in all three of her dirt outings, including a half-length loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, another race that had a pace collapse.

Much is being made of the slow pace Dads Caps got away with in his upset of the Carter at Aqueduct. As one who needed Dads Caps in easier, shorter races in his last two starts, and saw him surrender late both times, I can tell you the slow pace he set Saturday didn’t feel at the time like it would be nearly enough of an advantage for him. But of course, Dads Caps didn’t surrender this time. And to say the sprint division is unsettled right now would be an understatement.

UPDATE, Sunday, 5:08, pm - What a terrific 4-year-old debut from Princess of Sylmar in Sunday's Cat Cay Stakes at Aqueduct. She decisively split horses into the stretch and drew off stylishly to win in fast raw time in her first start since her miscue in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall.

With Princess of Sylmar back in full force, now we just need two-time champion Beholder, impressive winner of that Distaff last fall, to make her way back in good order to set up a summit meeting between these two in the $1 million Ogden Phipps on the Belmont Stakes undercard on June 7.