Updated on 05/08/2014 4:05PM

Kentucky Derby: California Chrome, Ring Weekend emerge as strong contenders

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Tom Keyser
Ring Weekend and jockey Daniel Centeno win the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby by three lengths Saturday.

CYPRESS, Calif. – Despite having a runner at Los Alamitos on Saturday night and losing an hour of sleep because of daylight saving time, trainer Art Sherman was at work before anyone at his Los Alamitos barn Sunday morning, still excited over the victory by his colt California Chrome on Saturday at Santa Anita in the San Felipe Stakes.

“I came here early and checked his legs. They were nice and cold,” Sherman said while watching his trainees at Los Alamitos. “He ate everything up. He’s alert. He wants to bite you.”

California Chrome took a large bite out of the Kentucky Derby prep season Saturday with his runaway victory in the San Felipe.

“He was impressive,” Sherman said. “So much goes on after the race, you don’t have time to focus on it, but you do when it gets quiet and you’re by yourself, and you think about it. It was quite a day. I enjoyed it.”

The San Felipe was one of two stakes Saturday that had implications for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. At Tampa Bay Downs, Ring Weekend scored a front-running victory in the Tampa Bay Derby in his first start since defeating maidens.

Both races offered 50 points to the winner under the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field should more than the maximum of 20 horses enter, and that should be enough to make the field.

California Chrome, who earned a division-high 107 Beyer Figure in the San Felipe, has won five times in nine starts and owns a three-race winning streak. Sherman said he has yet to decide whether to run in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5 or merely train California Chrome right into the Kentucky Derby, which would mean a layoff of eight weeks from the San Felipe. California Chrome had been off for six weeks prior to the San Felipe.

“I’ll let the horse dictate,” Sherman said. “If I think he needs another race, I’ll try ’em. It’s either that or train straight into the Derby.

“He’s a horse who enjoys training, and we’ve got a great dirt track here. Dennis Moore,” Sherman said, referring to the track superintendent who oversaw the recent expansion of Los Alamitos to a one-mile track, “did a fantastic job. And the management here has bent over backwards for the horsemen. They want you here.”

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

California Chrome had been based at Hollywood Park, which closed for training in January. It was then that Sherman relocated to Los Alamitos, which is primarily used for Quarter Horse racing.

Ring Weekend, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, will definitely have one more race prior to the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Graham Motion on Sunday said he had yet to decide whether it would be the $250,000 Calder Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt April 5 or the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland on April 12.

The Calder Derby does not offer any Derby qualifying points, though the 50 points that Ring Weekend now has likely will be sufficient. The Blue Grass offers 100 points to the winner.

Ring Weekend is stabled at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida, so he would either remain there to run at Calder or run at Keeneland upon leaving Florida to begin final preparations for the Kentucky Derby.

“I want to keep it simple,” Motion said Sunday.

“It’s two months until the Derby, which I think is too long to go without a race. If it was six weeks, like with Animal Kingdom,” Motion said, referring to his 2011 Derby winner, “I’d probably train him up to the Derby. Whether we run at Calder or at Keeneland, there’s less traveling involved.”

Ring Weekend, who was given a 94 Beyer Figure for his Tampa Bay Derby victory, ran three times without success last year at age 2. He was then gelded and was second in his first start this year before winning his next two starts.

“We thought last year he was one of our best 2-year-olds, which is why we took him to Saratoga,” Motion said. “He was disappointing. That’s why we gelded him. It’s made a huge difference.”