05/27/2014 12:43PM

California Chrome measures up with recent heroes

Barbara D. Livingston
Smarty Jones, winning the 2004 Kentucky Derby, had a similar running style to fellow dual-classic winner California Chrome.

We have known since that final night at Hollywood Park that California Chrome had the instant acceleration that has been winning major races forever. We knew California Chrome was fast enough to win classic races when he got Beyers of 108 and 107 in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. We found out in the Preakness that California Chrome is tough, with multiple gears, first fighting off that early turn move by Social Inclusion and then holding firm against a serious stretch charge by Ride On Curlin. We shall find out on June 7 if California Chrome is legendary.

I find this colt irresistible. He fits how I think and how I bet. I absolutely love horses with early speed that can make large fields into small fields, that don’t fall into good position, but run into good position. None of these “perfect’’ trips are happening by accident. Victor Espinoza knows exactly what he has and uses just enough of it at the start of races to make the finishes of the races academic.
When I think of comparisons to top 3-year-olds of the 21st century, I think first of Smarty Jones. Stylistically, Smarty and California Chrome have a lot in common. During their respective long winning streaks, their trips, because of their speed, generally were uncomplicated.

And when Social Inclusion made it “complicated,’’ as Espinoza so eloquently termed it after the Preakness, California Chrome brushed it off, ran away from the threat and won the race at the quarter pole.

The final half-mile of the Preakness reminded me of why I was so enamored of Point Given before the 2001 Kentucky Derby that I really thought he was going to win the Triple Crown. He was a horse that could make one move to get the lead and another in the stretch to hold it. Those are the champions.
So I see some Smarty Jones and Point Given in California Chrome. Those were two horses that could and maybe should have won the Triple Crown. Horse-racing circumstance got them as it has gotten so many other horses in so many races.

Those two maybe had a more impressive set of Beyers than California Chrome, but Chrome has an even better “move’’ than either of them.

Point Given’s 3-year-old figures were 105 (San Felipe), 110 Santa Anita Derby, 99 (Kentucky Derby when fifth), 111 (Preakness), 114 (Belmont), 106 (Haskell) and 117 (Travers).

Smarty’s 3-year-old figures were 97 (Count Fleet), 95 (Southwest), 112 (Rebel), 109 (Arkansas Derby), 107 (Kentucky Derby), 118 (Preakness) and 100 (Belmont).

When I watch California Chrome accelerate at the quarter pole, I keep seeing those European grass horses that come over here every year for the Breeders’ Cup and blow by the Americans in the stretch like they are tied to a post. I do not remember a recent American dirt horse with this kind of instant acceleration, at least not in six consecutive races.

That speed/acceleration combination is what makes California Chrome so unique. Horses often have one, but not the other. Smarty had the speed and solid acceleration, especially in the Preakness. Point Given had the acceleration to blow races apart at any stage, but he was not a horse that generally raced near the lead.

When you have speed, acceleration and the ability to relax, you have something very special. That is California Chrome. I thought he was a cinch in the Derby for all those reasons. The only thing that concerned me in the Preakness was the possibility he would get pinned near the rail and be uncomfortable. That thought went away in the first 50 yards when he broke so well and got such great position.

If Social Inclusion does not run in the Belmont (and he should not run in the Belmont), I can see a scenario where California Chrome is loose on an easy lead or, at least, stalking in moderate fractions.
At some point, Espinoza will have a decision to make. Does he do what Gary Stevens did on Point Given in the 2001 Belmont, just open up on the turn and blow the field away, running the pursuers so dizzy that, even if Chrome starts to tire, they are too tired to chase and have no chance to catch up.
Or does he wait until the quarter pole again, after Chrome has run the Derby distance and ask him to run away from the field, hoping that same burst is there after the colt has run as far as he has ever run before.

It is an interesting dilemma, but you can only have it if you are riding a horse with the talent that potentially gives you those options. Espinoza definitely is riding that kind of horse, a 3-year-old colt that is a Belmont Stakes win from being a forever horse.