05/14/2014 7:31PM

Beyer: California Chrome still the one to beat

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BALTIMORE – When California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby, racing fans loved the story: down-to-earth owners, an old-school trainer, and a humbly bred colt. The saga could get even better as California Chrome attempts to win Saturday’s Preakness and move closer to a sweep of the Triple Crown.

But there is some detail that doesn’t fit well with this hopeful story line. The slow final time of the Derby, 2:03.66, suggested that the winner is no superstar. Speed figures – which take into account the condition of the track and the final time – confirmed the weakness of the race. The Beyer Speed Figure of 97 was the lowest for any Derby win since the ratings first appeared in Daily Racing Form in 1992. This was not a unique assessment. The Ragozin sheets gave California Chrome the poorest winning Derby number since 1974.

In the media and the blogosphere, there have been howls that something must be wrong. How could the colt be so much slower than he was in his earlier victories at Santa Anita? How could so many horses behind him in the Derby earn below-normal figures, too? Many people speculated that the track had been maintained and watered insufficiently before the Derby, accounting for the slow time.

“The track seemed dry,” wrote Byron King in DRF . “That was reflected in the significant dirt kickback. I say forget the time. I see no reason why ... California Chrome isn’t as good as – if not better than – other recent Derby winners.”

This is not an academic issue; the quality of California Chrome’s Derby performance is a key issue in analyzing Saturday’s Preakness.

I believe there was no change in the Churchill Downs track during the day; the track superintendent insisted that the surface was watered sufficiently before the Derby. The Derby was slow because most of the horses were ill-suited to the 1 1/4-mile distance. After spurting to a clear lead on the final turn, California Chrome decelerated in the last furlong, even though jockey Victor Espinoza was urging him until the final strides. He scored by less than two lengths over a rival who had never won anything but a maiden race. Ten horses finished within 8 1/2 lengths of the winner. This was no dominant performance.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would be eager to bet against California Chrome. Not only did he record a poor speed figure, but he did so after benefiting from an easy trip in the Derby. He sat behind two front-runners who were setting an honest (but not destructive) pace and shot past them when they tired. He never had a straw in his path.

Yet it is difficult to make a solid case for any of his challengers at Pimlico. If California Chrome only runs slightly better than he did in the Derby (which he ought to do at the shorter distance), he’s apt to win as an odds-on favorite. This makes the Preakness an unattractive betting race, but I nevertheless have a plan for playing the trifecta.

The Preakness is filled with quick horses who regularly seize the early lead or fight for it – Social Inclusion, Bayern, Pablo Del Monte, General a Rod, and California Chrome. The favorite surely will be sitting just behind the leaders, but any or all of the other four could get involved in a torrid pace that compromises them.

Accordingly, I am eliminating Pablo Del Monte, Social Inclusion, and Bayern. The latter two probably will be the second and third choices in the wagering, and throwing them out will create some betting value.

Social Inclusion may possess more raw talent than any horse in the field; he scored a victory at Gulfstream Park so impressively that owner Ron Sanchez received – and rejected – an $8 million offer for the colt. But Social Inclusion hasn’t raced since tiring to finish third in the Wood Memorial six weeks ago. In the interim, he sustained a minor foot injury. With only three career starts, he doesn’t have the seasoning for a race as demanding as the Preakness.

Bayern will get plenty of support because he is trained by Bob Baffert. But all of the colt’s successes have come in races at a mile or shorter; he faded to third place in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. The pace and the distance of the Preakness will work against him.

Dynamic Impact and Ride On Curlin are the most credible Preakness challengers. Dynamic Impact won the Illinois Derby on April 19 in a good effort, earning a Beyer of 102. Ride On Curlin endured an absurd trip in the Derby, as jockey Calvin Borel tried to come from last place in the field of 19. He rallied belatedly to finish seventh – not a bad effort under the circumstances. He could be helped by a hot Preakness pace.

General a Rod and Kid Cruz are marginal contenders. The former might be vying for the lead, but he is a seasoned and tenacious runner, and he won’t give up easily. Kid Cruz has only won a couple of minor stakes at Pimlico, but he has a strong late kick, and he will be rallying past some of the tired pacesetters.

My Preakness play is to use California Chrome, Dynamic Impact, and Ride On Curlin in the top two positions in a trifecta, adding Kid Cruz and General a Rod in the third spot. A trifecta combination with a $1 unit will cost $18: The numbers are 1-3-10 with 1-3-10 with 1-2-3-7-10. If California Chrome wins as the favorite, the play should return a modest profit. But it could turn out to be lucrative if California Chrome’s low Derby speed figure portends a big surprise in the Preakness.

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