05/01/2014 2:10PM

Andrew Beyer: Wicked Strong coming to hand at right time

Barbara D. Livingston
Wicked Strong, training at Churchill, confirmed the talent he showed at 2 in his impressive Wood victory.

Since 20-horse fields have become the norm in the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous race also is its most inscrutable race. It has produced many surprising winners and some who defy comprehension, such as 50-1 shots Mine That Bird in 2009 and Giacomo in 2005. It is so contentious that no horse in the last four years has gone to the post at odds of less than 4-1.

But the 140th Derby appears to be different. It will have a clear-cut favorite in California Chrome, the winner of four straight stakes by a total of 24 1/4 lengths. In my opinion, it’s basically a two-horse race between California Chrome and Wicked Strong.

The field lacks depth because so many talented colts have been sidelined or retired due to injury or illness. The top three 2-year-olds in last year’s Eclipse Award voting – Shared Belief, New Year’s Day, and Havana – have not raced in 2014.

Other outstanding 3-year-olds – including Honor Code, Cairo Prince, and the undefeated Constitution – have been knocked out of action in the last few weeks. In their absence, many horses with little chance to win have qualified for a spot in the starting gate.

In an era when Thoroughbreds are more fragile than their forebears and trainers campaign them sparingly, California Chrome is a throwback. His 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, remembers the old days – in 1955, he was the exercise rider for the great horse Swaps and traveled with him in a railroad boxcar to Louisville.

He has managed California Chrome as if this were 1955, running him 10 times coming into the Derby, more than any other starter. There are no doubts about California Chrome’s seasoning and fitness.

The humbly bred colt was no prodigy, but he has developed into a full-fledged star in the last two months, running away with the San Felipe Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. He dominated a strong crop of California 3-year-olds who confirmed their merit when they raced outside of their home state. The Bob Baffert-trained Hoppertunity beat the best Arkansas-based 3-year-olds in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but California Chrome trounced him in the Santa Anita Derby.

California Chrome is quick. He’s not a one-dimensional front-runner, but in his last two victories he was on or near the lead over a racetrack that favored horses with his style. (On the day of the Santa Anita Derby, six of the seven dirt races were won by horses who took a clear lead or dueled for the lead.)

In the Kentucky Derby, however, horses racing at the front of the pack are often at a disadvantage. As jockeys on speedsters hustle from the gate to secure a good position, the early pace of the Derby can be so fast that every horse near the lead weakens. (That’s what happened in 2013, when Orb rallied from 17th place to win.)

The pace scenario is hard to predict this year, but there are plenty of quick horses besides California Chrome – notably Chitu, General a Rod, Wildcat Red, and Uncle Sigh – who could produce a suicidal pace.

The favorite’s prospects at 1 1/4 miles also are uncertain. For much of Derby history, pedigree was a crucial factor; horses needed the right genes to succeed at 10 furlongs. In recent years, this requirement has diminished in importance. Nevertheless, California Chrome’s bloodlines are unusually weak. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, never won a race longer than 5 1/2 furlongs.

Wicked Strong has a solid distance-running pedigree and an ideal style for the Derby. He rallied from sixth place to win his most recent start, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, by 3 1/2 lengths.

That effort came after two poor performances in Florida, and some handicappers might dismiss it as a fluke. But last fall in the Remsen Stakes, Wicked Strong showed that he was among the best of his generation. The Remsen was run with a ridiculously slow pace – the leaders crawled through the first six furlongs in 1:17.56. It’s difficult for any horse to rally under such circumstances, but Wicked Strong was gaining on Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the stretch and lost to them by only a half-length. Both of those colts would have been leading Derby contenders if they had stayed healthy.

In the Wood Memorial, Wicked Strong belatedly lived up to the promise he showed as a 2-year-old. His Beyer Speed Figure of 104 wasn’t quite as good as California Chrome’s last two performances (107 and 108), but it was superior to other contenders who will be coming from behind – Danza, Intense Holiday, and Candy Boy. He drew post No. 20, but outside posts have not been a disadvantage in 20-horse fields. With the pace and the distance of the Derby likely to work against the favorite, Wicked Strong is the horse to bet.

My selections: 1) Wicked Strong; 2) California Chrome; 3) Candy Boy.