04/16/2014 3:38PM

Jay Hovdey: Long Kentucky Derby drought for Californians

Shigeki Kikkawa
California Chrome will try to become the first California-based horse since 1962 to win the Kentucky Derby.

An expert in statistical theory and application would suggest that if something has not happened in 51 years, it is unlikely to happen in the 52nd. Such an expert also would recommend against playing cards with a guy named Ace or betting on the Vikings in the Super Bowl. Any Super Bowl.

Those who are prepared to follow California Chrome over the cliff of passionate favoritism in the 140th Kentucky Derby two weeks from now would be wise to keep that number – 51 – in mind, because the last time a racehorse who was born and raised in the Golden State won the Derby was in 1962, when a Catholic was president, Cuba had missiles, and gasoline was 25 cents a gallon.

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

This is not to say it matters squat to the Thoroughbred in question where he was born. It wasn’t as if California Chrome staggered to his wobbly legs on the 18th of February, three years ago, caught a glimpse of the license plate on the veterinarian’s truck, and muttered, “Aw, nuts, there goes the flippin’ Derby.”

Still, there is no disputing that there have been 51 Kentucky Derby winners since 1962, and not one of them had his or her roots in California. There was one from Illinois, one from Maryland, one from New York (New York?), two from Pennsylvania, three from Virginia, four from Florida, and two – believe it or not – from Canada. The rest have been from Kentucky. Even the Derby winner from Venezuela was originally from Kentucky.

The question, therefore, is begged: What’s wrong with California-breds? Is it the water? The air? The traffic? Are gestating mares negatively impacted by seismic rumblings? Too much patchouli in the sweet feed?

If California can breed a horse like Tiznow to win back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, then it ought to be able to churn out at least a couple of Derby winners by accident. Granted, the three lonely Derby winners from California were choice. Morvich went into the 1922 Kentucky Derby 11-0 and came out of it 12-0. Swaps beat Nashua in 1955 and was Horse of the Year in 1956. Decidedly, the hero of 1962, broke a Kentucky Derby time record that was set by Whirlaway 21 years earlier. There are no boring Derby winners from California.

The sober-minded mathematician would argue that every breeding region is at a rank disadvantage in terms of Derby chances simply because Kentucky breeds far more horses than any other state. In 2012, for instance, the Kentucky foals outnumbered California foals by more than 4-1. This is some consolation, but the feeling does not last.

And it’s not as if California-breds haven’t taken a shot. Hill Rise, from the same farm as Decidedly, should have won the 1964 Kentucky Derby, but Bill Shoemaker got out-horsebacked by Bill Hartack on Northern Dancer. Golden Act won 1979 derbies in Arkansas and Louisiana but came up third-best to Spectacular Bid in Kentucky. Then there was 1980, when Cal-breds Rumbo and Jaklin Klugman finished second and third in the Derby to the filly Genuine Risk, when a filly hadn’t won the race in 65 years.

More recently, there was Best Pal, a future Hall of Famer who had just enough trouble down on the rail in 1991 to keep him from beating Strike the Gold. Cavonnier, the gelding from California’s wine country, lost the 1996 Kentucky Derby to Grindstone by the narrowest margin in the photo-finish history of the race. Free House, a California colt named for an English pub, ran well but settled for third in 1997 to Silver Charm.

Perhaps the answer lies in the last California-bred favored to win the Kentucky Derby. The year was 1986, his name was Snow Chief, and he was trained by Mel Stute.

Snow Chief was every inch the quality of California Chrome. The little black son of Reflected Glory took a five-race winning streak into the Kentucky Derby, which included the Hollywood Futurity, the Florida Derby, and a California Chrome-like six-length win in the Santa Anita Derby. Snow Chief was 2-1 at Churchill Downs, but after firing his best shot on the far turn, he was done. Another Cal-bred had bitten the Kentucky dust.

“It had nothing to do with him being a Cal-bred,” Stute said. “You can breed just as good a horse in California as anywhere. In the Derby, it comes down to the odds against you, and with 20 horses in the race every year, now the California-breds will always be outnumbered.”

Snow Chief already had beaten much of his Derby opposition in Florida and California that season.

“They say he got caught up on too fast a pace that day,” Stute said. “I don’t know. I do remember the advice Charlie Whittingham gave me about getting back to Kentucky early to get the horse used to the racetrack. I didn’t take his advice when I probably should have. But I did for the Preakness.”

Whittingham won that Derby with Ferdinand, then Stute and Snow Chief came right back to take the Preakness, with Ferdinand a distant second. By season’s end, Snow Chief had become the first California-bred colt to be voted champion of the division. That’s not like winning the Kentucky Derby, but it’s something.

MR More than 1 year ago
Dream-on Hovdey. It won't be happening this year either.
John More than 1 year ago
Beat nobody? He toyed with the 2nd or 3rd Derby choice, Hoppertunity. Please name me the horse in this field that has beaten somebody.
barry lloyd More than 1 year ago
Here is some of the who of who this horse has beaten: dublin ,big tire, r prettyboy floyd, friendswith k mill , schoolof hard rocks, kristo, midnight hawk--who just recently lost to a nobody in the Illinois derby. Hoppertunity caught an off track in Oak and ran big, before that race he was not on the radar.
John More than 1 year ago
Again, who has beaten somebody?
Lawrence MacSelwiney More than 1 year ago
You must be wearing blinkers.
Alan Knox More than 1 year ago
Shouldn't this story be in Drf+, it's only eight days old LOL
barry lloyd More than 1 year ago
He has not beaten anybody. This horse will be lucky to hit the board on Mat 3
Suzanne Sugarbaker More than 1 year ago
Joke's on all you naysayers.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
TOSS the past history already ! Here's the best chance for a TC winner since Real Quiet..........Gets by YUM Brands, it over........Here is where time will come into play... CC is 3 to 4 seconds faster than any prep so far at 1&1/8.......Will absolutely hear NOTHING about track conditions........then the talk will be on>>>>. why did it take a Cal Bred to do it, no Ky breds in what 36 years ??????????????????????
jttf More than 1 year ago
yeah and game on dude's 1:58 made him spectacular bid. so that means a $50,000 claimer like imperative beat "the bid" two out of three times.
Lawrence MacSelwiney More than 1 year ago
Then please tell me who is better and beaten better. Danza made minced meat out of Tapiture in a race Tapiture obviously wasn't try to win., Wicked Strong beat a decent field at best, Midnight Hawk got beat a dirty nose in a very good time and he and the winner were nine clear of third. Hoppertunity beat Tapiture and that form was validated by his runner up effort to Chrome. There is not a horse in the field with his qualities. Sorry cover the response was supposed to be to Barry.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Actually, it sounded like you were talking about John Nash, in your first sentence..
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
It doesn't take a roket cientist to figure this one out. There are 20 top quality stallions in Kentucky, to every decent stallion in California, there are 20 top quality broodmares in Kentucky, to every decent broodmare in good ole California. Remember top quality compared to decent. and most of the better California mares go to Kentucky to get bred and foaled. My question is why can the horses from one track west of the Mississippi be so dominant to those from the 10 plus tracks east of the big river. Compare the Kentucky Derby winners over the past 20 years and that one west coast track sure produces a lot of great competitors. It must be those drugs BB and his cronies use, or maybe the jocks from the west are all using buzzers, or maybe the good ole boys back east are just being kind to these cowboys.
ctgreyhound More than 1 year ago
CA Chrome, from cover to cover, is a feel-good story, not unlike Funny Cide. He has as good a chance as anyone else. It's all in the trip he gets. Foul weather could hurt his chances; put that in the unknown category. We know he's smart, fast & has a regular jockey. What more can you ask?
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Interesting story Jay, let's just hope C.C. can over come the odds and get it done. As those of us that have been in the game a long time can truly relate to what I'm saying. Never put all your eggs in one basket in the Ky. Derby
Ann More than 1 year ago
The first sentences of your article are not likely correct; statisticians would need a lot more information than provided to have an attitude. Like what is the likelihood of occurrence in a single trial? Are different years independent trials or is there a co-dependence? If they are independent trials (which I think they are, since totally different populations are involved in each year's race), then last year's or any other year's results have no impact on this year's results. Like when you throw fair dice - the probability of a seven is the same in each throw, no matter what you threw last time. How long has it been since you had a statistics class? (I'm a former college instructor in statistics.)
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
Ann clam down, this story was mean't to be enjoyed not dissected, second of all kudos to you being whatever your so proud of but in reality your the only one that cares what you do. Take the time to enjoy and stop tooting your own horn it's a turn off to others
JDLBets More than 1 year ago
I don't always agree with her, but she's a lot more interesting to read than most on here.