04/03/2014 3:13PM

Santa Anita Derby: California Chrome tops big-name field


ARCADIA, Calif. – Art Sherman was going to be a little late to Santa Anita on Thursday morning. He had to oversee his main stable of horses down at Los Alamitos, so his son and assistant trainer, Alan, supervised the morning preparation of California Chrome here at Santa Anita in advance of his start in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby.

His first priority when he got to Santa Anita was to get a haircut, “So I look halfway decent,” Sherman said.

He needn’t worry about that with his colt. California Chrome looked like a bright copper penny Thursday morning, so whatever doubts Sherman initially had over running in this race following his victory March 8 in the San Felipe Stakes have evaporated like morning fog.

“He’s coming back in four weeks, and he was a little tired at first after that last race,” Sherman said by phone Thursday morning. “But after seven or eight days, I said, ‘I have to do something.’ He was bucking and playing. He’s as good as I’ve had him. He’s turned the corner again.”

[Santa Anita Derby Day: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

California Chrome heads into the Santa Anita Derby as the best prospect on the West Coast, if not in the country, for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. But this race came up as strong as any Derby prep so far, with highly regarded Candy Boy, the winner of the Robert Lewis Stakes, and Hoppertunity, the winner of the Rebel Stakes, the other marquee names among the field of eight.

The Santa Anita Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, is the eighth race on an 11-race card that includes the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, a prep for the May 2 Kentucky Oaks that features Ria Antonia, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. There are three other stakes, including the Grade 3 Providencia for 3-year-old fillies on turf.

First post is noon, with the Santa Anita Derby set for approximately 3:40 p.m. It will be shown live on a 90-minute telecast on NBC Sports Network, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Pacific, that will include the live running of the Wood Memorial from Aqueduct.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Not only is the Santa Anita Derby worth $1 million, but it is lucrative in terms of points toward a berth in the Kentucky Derby on the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the Derby field should more than the maximum 20 enter. The winner gets 100 points, and second is worth 40, with lesser awards for third (20) and fourth (10).

Because of their stakes wins last month, both California Chrome and Hoppertunity are in good standing regarding points. Candy Boy, however, likely has to finish first or second to be assured of making the Kentucky Derby field, so in addition to pace, class, and distance, another significant handicapping factor in this race is intent.

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

California Chrome drew well in post 5 and figures to be on or near the lead. He inherited the lead in the San Felipe when he broke well and no one went with him, but Sherman said jockey Victor Espinoza will sit off a target if someone else is committed to the lead.

“Victor can sit anywhere he wants,” Sherman said. “I hope he can have a target without having to restrain him.”

Candy Boy starts just outside California Chrome, in post 6, so he should get a good, stalking trip.

“We’re just going to break outside him and follow him around,” John Sadler, who trains Candy Boy, said Thursday morning. “There’s not going to be any elegant strategy. California Chrome is faster. But one thing you can say about Candy Boy is that his figures improve every race, and hopefully, he’ll go forward this time.”

Hoppertunity, like California Chrome, was not an immediate certainty for this race following his last win. But running here, rather than awaiting the Kentucky Derby, seemed like a smarter option, trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday.

“He had to ship twice, and he put up good efforts,” Baffert said of trips to Oaklawn and Fair Grounds. “My first inclination was to wait, run straight in the Derby, but I thought I’d give him one run here. It’ll be a prep, and then he’ll ship there, and I won’t have a lot to do with him.”

Schoolofhardrocks was a distant fourth behind California Chrome in the San Felipe, but that was his first start since a debut win against maidens more than six months prior, so he figures to improve.

Friendswith K Mill was second in a first-level allowance last time out.

Big Tire comes off a maiden win in his sixth start.

Rprettyboyfloyd was second to Big Tire, then came back to finish second again against maidens in his most-recent try.

Dublin Up, also still a maiden, was third behind Big Tire and Rprettyboyfloyd in a March 7 maiden race.