03/12/2014 11:27AM

Dick Jerardi: Taking a shine to California Chrome

Benoit & Associates
California Chrome got a 107 Beyer Speed Figure for this romp in the San Felipe on Saturday.

Sometimes, you know in November. Many years, it is April, or even Kentucky Derby Week.

You see a horse and say, “That is the one.” Given that I am in the middle of chasing basketballs around the country, I will admit that I had not seen a single one of California Chrome’s races until I fired up my laptop to watch the San Felipe Stakes last Saturday.

It was disappointing to see that Bayern had to be scratched after those two dazzling wins, but I was looking forward to seeing Midnight Hawk, who I thought had run a very impressive third behind Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. I thought he would improve off that race. Well, Midnight Hawk did improve and still got crushed.

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

California Chrome absolutely flew out of the gate to clear the field instantly. But jockey Victor Espinoza obviously knew what he had under him, so he just let the colt settle into stride, barely ahead of Midnight Hawk. Not fully appreciating California Chrome, I was sort of waiting for Midnight Hawk to go by. I waited on the run down the backstretch. I waited on the turn. I am still waiting.

It was pretty obvious by the end of the far turn that California Chrome was not only running fast, but the colt was running easily. And when Espinoza asked the horse to take off, he took off. And it was just over. Trevor Denman called it a walkover at the finish. That seemed fair.

The Santa Anita surface was really fast Saturday. Game On Dude was just a few ticks off the 1 1/4-mile track record when he won the Santa Anita Handicap. California Chrome ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59, a really fast time on a track that was yielding fast times. But the track wasn’t that fast, and the Beyer Speed Figure told the story. California Chrome got a 107 Beyer, the kind of figure that will win the Derby.

As soon as I saw the figure, I went back to watch California Chrome’s previous races. He was sensational in the California Cup Derby and equally dazzling in the King Glorious, both races restricted to California-breds.

The San Felipe was restricted to 3-year-olds who are alive and in serious training. At this moment, California Chrome looks like the best in that group.

It was not just the figure that impressed me. It was how California Chrome has been running. He won the San Felipe on the lead. He won those other two races with smooth, overwhelming moves from off the pace.

Daily Racing Form national correspondent Jay Privman pointed out to me that the colt really took a giant leap forward last summer in his first race with blinkers and Lasix, a win in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar on July 31, when he got an 83 Beyer, a very nice number for a 2-year-old before August.

Privman also pointed out that California Chrome had legitimate excuses when he was beaten in the Del Mar Futurity (tough trip) and Golden State Juvenile (bad start on Breeders’ Cup Friday, when it was impossible to make up ground).

In his last three races, all with Espinoza, California Chrome got a chance to run in the clear, and he won those races by a combined 19 lengths. In the California Cup Derby, he overwhelmed Tamarando, who came back to win the El Camino Real Derby. In the San Felipe, California Chrome ran away from Midnight Hawk, who had gotten Beyers of 84, 95, and 93 in his three starts.

If you handicapped California Chrome off his breeding, he would be a toss-out in just about any race. His dam, Love the Chase, a Maryland-bred daughter of the excellent Maryland sire Not For Love, ran six times at Golden Gate Fields, with one win in an $8,000 maiden claimer in which she got a 42 Beyer.

Her owners bred Love the Chase to $2,500 sire Lucky Pulpit and got a major Derby contender. Art Sherman, the jockey turned trainer and the exercise rider for Swaps when he won the Derby, appears to have his horse of a lifetime.

We still have almost two months to the Derby, and so much can still happen. But on this day, California Chrome is my horse.