03/26/2014 10:39AM

Dick Jerardi: Chitu is a strong contender amid a changed Derby landscape

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Chitu won the Sunland Derby on Sunday and is a strong contender for this year's Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

I was not expecting much from the two 3-year-old stakes last weekend and definitely was underwhelmed by the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on Saturday. Then, I caught Chitu in the Sunland Derby on Sunday. He looked good all the way and finished like a serious Kentucky Derby contender with a 102 Beyer Speed Figure.

Chitu’s only loss in four starts was by a half-length to Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. A son of Henny Hughes typically does not scream 1 1/4 miles, but the horse was still running well at the end of the 1 1/8 miles. Another 220 yards did not seem impossible, especially for a horse whose dam, Sea Gift, is a daughter of A.P. Indy.

Chitu’s form is yet another example of how much Derby evaluation has changed in the last few years. Previously, a horse who did not make his debut until Dec. 7 and his stakes debut until Feb. 8 would have been dismissed as too inexperienced. Now, a horse with this form is deemed hot and a serious contender. If you don’t adapt to changing times, you get left behind. Times have changed. Chitu is a contender.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Spiral winner We Miss Artie, tied atop the Derby points leaderboard at 60 with the unbeaten Samraat, is not a contender. The horse got an 85 Beyer in his Spiral win. He got a 70 Beyer last October when he won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

We Miss Artie’s two stakes wins were on Polytrack. He is 0 for 3 on dirt, with Beyers of 60 in a maiden race at Belmont, 81 when seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, and 70 when eighth, beaten by 17 1/2 lengths, in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Under the current system, We Miss Artie certainly has earned his way into the Derby, and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey will no doubt have great fun during Derby Week.

None of that, however, means that We Miss Artie has any chance to win. There is simply no hint of that in his form. We Miss Artie’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, has 10 percent of the Triple Crown nominees and undoubtedly will have more than 10 percent of the Derby field. You can never have enough Pletcher horses.

Speaking of 3-year-olds, remember this name: Favorite Tale.

After beating an allowance field at Parx by 14 lengths Monday and getting a 100 Beyer, the Pennsylvania-bred Favorite Tale is unbeaten in three starts, all at Parx since Jan. 4. Owned and bred by Paul Conaway, trained by Lupe Preciado, and ridden in all three starts by veteran Jose Flores, this is a very talented horse. His first two Beyers were 89 and 91.

Favorite Tale is not nominated to the Triple Crown. The connections wanted to try some out-of-town races for the gelding but were stuck at Parx due to the quarantine, which was lifted in mid-March. So, at some point, Favorite Tale will try some tougher company and see if that Parx form translates.

Favorite Tale has shown great speed in each of his starts, the first at six furlongs and the last two each at 6 1/2 furlongs, so it is hard to say how far he might go. The breeding is promising. Favorite Tale is by Tale of the Cat out of a daughter of Grindstone. Stay tuned.

As we hit the seven 170-point preps over the next three Saturdays and look for one of the obvious contenders to win again and, hopefully, run fast and true, I am still on the California Chrome bandwagon.

Perhaps something will happen in Florida or Louisiana on Saturday to change my mind. Or California Chrome won’t run back to his previous form in the April 5 Santa Anita Derby. Maybe the Wood Memorial winner will run out of the TV set, or some horse will do a Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby. The Blue Grass was always one of my favorite preps, but the Polytrack surface has rendered the result less than meaningful as a Derby hint.

Whatever, it is now officially getting late in the process. I am in need of the 2014 Derby superfecta, but first I need the winner. After that, it is simply a question of aligning the contenders, constructing the tickets, and going to collect the cash.