05/07/2014 11:32AM

Hovdey: There's no such thing as a sure thing

Tom Keyser
California Chrome silenced the last remaining skeptics with his powerful Derby win.

California Chrome was greeted last week in Kentucky with a misspelled saddle towel (“Califorina”) and a Churchill Downs media bio that referred to him as a “bay colt by Lucky Pulpit.”

He will arrive in Maryland next week as the toast of the racing world, a white-stockinged California superstar every bit as chestnut as the day he was born.

The ripples from a race like the 140th Kentucky Derby spread far and wide. In Kentucky, State Representative David Osborne is busy shipping a case of Woodford Reserve to pay up on a bet he made with California State Senator Andy Vidak. Vidak gave Osborne every Kentucky-bred in the field, all 12 of them, and put up a supply California cherries from his Central Valley farm.

“I don’t mind winning the booze, but I’m more excited about California Chrome,” Vidak said Tuesday from his Sacramento office. “This is a very big deal for our industry. He was born, bred, and trained early in my district, maybe 18 minutes down the road at John Harris’s farm.”

Vidak said he’d send Osborne a case of freshly harvested California cherries anyway, as a gesture of good will. He was asked if he is hustling a similar challenge for the Preakness.

“I’d like to hook up with someone back there,” Vidak replied. “I haven’t been to Maryland very often. What have they got? Crab?”

This time he may have to give more than 12-1.

Now that California Chrome has validated his West Coast form and silenced all but the most stubborn skeptics, there will be a tendency lean too far in the other direction. A word of warning, though. The foregone conclusions drawn in the immediate wake of California Chrome’s Derby are not to be trusted. Those include:

◗ “California Chrome can’t lose the Preakness.” Of course he can lose the Preakness. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that any Derby winner can lose the Preakness (thank you, Michael Corleone). Remember Orb? Fusaichi Pegasus? Unbridled? Swale? Riva Ridge? They all left Louisville with fellow 3-year-olds scattered in their wake and nothing of comparable substance on the horizon. Then came Baltimore, and heartbreak.

◗ “California Chrome’s victory will spark a resurgence of the California breeding business.” Sorry, but nothing short of the relocation of Tapit and War Front to Harris Farms could give rise to the idling industry out West, unless the catchphrase “Come Breed a Derby Winner for Practically Nothing!” is someone’s idea of a selling point. There is an ongoing program of bonus money in the state for the most accomplished local runners, which eventually could raise the pulse of investment. But one horse – even a horse like California Chrome – can’t do it by himself.

◗ “The California Chrome bubble will burst when he faces Untapable.” The filly was impressive in winning the Kentucky Oaks, no doubt. And perhaps she would be competitive with California Chrome down the line. Those planted firmly in the Untapable camp should tie on for a long, frustrating ride, however. The chances of Steve Asmussen – the man with the PETA bullseye on his back – running a beloved filly against big, bad colts on a national stage lie somewhere south of slim and none. The mob cries for the instant gratification of another Rachel Alexandra when Untapable, allowed to evolve in her own time, could be another Royal Delta.

◗ “A colt like California Chrome will bring fans back to the track.” This conclusion will take a while to prove, one way or another. But whether or not he brings new faces to the sport, California Chrome is certainly enriching the experience of the existing audience. I witnessed the running of the Derby in the Santa Anita Park clubhouse mezzanine last Saturday, in the company of my 8-year-old daughter, and left the track with a buzz that had nothing to do with one of Nola’s special California Chrome cocktails (blue vodka, curacao, soda or 7, and a lime) served at her horseshoe bar.

Among those in the crowd at one of the HD big screens was Michael “Whitey” McCarthy, who looked seriously out of place in work clothes straight from the barn. McCarthy, respected far and wide as Todd Pletcher’s top assistant for the past decade, went on his own earlier this year with a public stable based at Santa Anita. One year ago, McCarthy was on the track at Churchill Downs with the Pletcher Derby runners, having won the Oaks the previous day with Princess of Sylmar. He knows what it’s like to win the big one as well.

“When we won the Derby with Super Saver in 2010, I guess I ran out onto the track farther than the security people preferred,” McCarthy said. “They asked if I could restrain myself a little more next time. I said I’d try.”

The Derby went off and the noise inside the mezz reached Zenyatta levels as California Chrome burst away from the pack and cruised to victory. It was like standing next to a 747 at takeoff. I covered my daughter’s ears and joined in the chorus.

McCarthy has horses for Eclipse Thoroughbreds, and he was rightfully pleased with the third-place performance of the stable’s lightly raced Danza. Still, like every trainer worth his day money, McCarthy couldn’t help wondering what it was like at that moment to be walking in the shoes of Art Sherman, who at 77 had become the oldest trainer to win the Derby. McCarthy is 42.

“For a feeling like that,” McCarthy said, “I wouldn’t care if I had to wait till I was 78.”