'Chrome's' Journey on the Derby Dozen

The Daily Racing Form website has published links to all their stories about California Chrome since his maiden win, providing a fascinating look back at how the colt made it from a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.

That got me thinking that it might be interesting to do something similar regarding California Chrome’s journey from the Cal Cup Derby to the Kentucky Derby through the Derby Dozen–how he was perceived each week and how he moved up from Knocking on the Door to the No. 1 spot.

This is not meant to be self-serving in any way, just what my thoughts and observations were at the time, while showing how he progressed through his races and workouts, and what questions he had to answer along the way.

(A look back at photos of California Chrome at Churchill follows)

FEB. 3

KNOCKING ON THE DOOR

It sounds odd saying this, but three of the most impressive 3-year-olds I’ve seen this year have been a California-bred and two New York-breds. I wanted very much to put CALIFORNIA CHROME in the Top 12, but I can’t justify taking someone off this quickly, and I need more space to write about him, so let’s consider him No. 13 for now, and not knocking, but pounding on the door.

I have not seen a 3-year-old this year more impressive than this colt. I watched all his races and loved everything I saw, especially the visual improvement in his last two starts – whether they were against Cal-breds or not. First off, forget about him being a Cal-bred. In the Cal Cup Derby he demolished a top-class horse in Tamarando, who had won a grade I and placed in two others and is one of the most consistent horses in the country and an explosive stretch runner.

In that race, California Chrome was caught looking to his left at the break and stumbled slightly, breaking awkwardly and bearing out and bumping with the outside horse. After going a bit wide into the first turn, he settled beautifully in third, and then at the five-sixteenths pole he unleashed an impressive turn of foot all on his own without being asked even slightly. He inhaled the leaders in a flash and cruised to the lead with Victor Espinoza already looking back several times, then changed leads smoothly and on cue and drew off on his own. This horse is so smooth and has such a long fluid stride and levels off so beautifully he is a joy to watch. Tamarando made his typical late run, drawing 3 1/4 lengths clear of the pack, but could not make a dent in California Chrome’s lead. C.C. covered his fourth quarter, going from two lengths back to 5 1/2 in front in :24 1/5 before cruising home, throwing his ears around, in :06 2/5.

In his previous start, the King Glorious, you couldn’t have asked a horse to run any straighter down the stretch. He accelerates on his own at the right time, nearing the head of the stretch, and for a long-striding horse his lead changes are so smooth you can barely see him do it.

As for his two prior defeats, in the Del Mar Futurity he got shuffled back around the turn and was stuck in traffic with nowhere to go, losing valuable ground. In the stretch, he again was in tight quarters and the way he threw his head out so abruptly, he had to have gotten hit across the face with the whip of the jock inside him. He still was beaten only two lengths by Tamarando.

In the Golden State Juvenile, he broke from the rail and leaped in the air at the start, dropping back to last. He then got very rank and quickly passed horses, getting as close as third. He had his head up in the air turning for home and never really leveled off until it was way too late. This time, he was beaten three lengths.

Earlier on, in his last race before getting Lasix, the 5 1/2-furlong Willard Proctor Memorial at Hollywood Park, he got caught up in a three-horse speed duel through a torrid opening quarter in :22 flat and that is not his style at all.

This horse has already won at 4 1/2 furlongs, 5 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs, and 1 1/16 miles and runs like he’s just getting started. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, is by Pulpit, out of a Cozzene mare, and what I love the most about his pedigree is that his dam is inbred (Rasmussen Factor) to the great Numbered Account (a daughter of Buckpasser) through her daughter Dance Number and son Polish Numbers. And his third dam is by English Derby and Washington D.C. International winner Sir Ivor.

I may be getting too high on this colt, and am drawn to him because he’s run eight times already and is trained by an old-school trainer in Art Sherman, but I do love everything about him and can’t wait to see him face many of California’s top Derby contenders in the San Felipe.

FEB. 10

10 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

I’ve been waiting to get him in the Top 12. Love everything about this colt, especially from a visual standpoint. Not only was his Thoro-Graph number in the Cal Cup Derby the top 3-year-old figure this year, along with Cairo Prince’s Holy Bull, he paired up his previous number, winning by huge margins both times, so it would seem he’s for real. He had his first work at his new home, Los Alamitos, and went a sharp half in :48 with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard. All the other reasons why I rate this horse so high were mentioned extensively in last week’s Knocking on the Door.

Feb. 17

10 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

When you see a tough, classy, consistent horse like Tamarando come off a shellacking at the hands of California Chrome and win the El Camino Real Derby with another of his patented stretch runs, you can appreciate just how good a horse California Chrome is. He had his first work back since his romp in the Cal Cup Derby, drilling a half in :47 4/5 at his new home, Los Alamitos. This colt continues to become more and more intriguing, and he just needs show this same kind of brilliance in open stakes. It’s time to start thinking points, and he has the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.

Feb. 24

10 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

He certainly seems to have found a home at Los Alamitos, turning in another stellar work, this time going six furlongs in 1:11 4/5. I’ve said pretty much all there is to say about him, but will reiterate how much I love watching him run. He seems to be putting everything together the right way and at the right time, and while still unproven in open company, I can’t help but feel that he will continue his ascent against better horses. Using grade I winner Tamarando as a gauge, you have to believe his total dominance over such a talented horse establishes him as a legitimate Derby threat. But he still has to go out there and prove he can compete with horses like Candy Boy and perhaps even Bayern. I have little doubt he’ll be up to the task.

March 3

8 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

His big test is coming up in the San Felipe, and we’ll finally find out how he fares against open company. I’m looking for a huge effort, despite the competition, and have moved him up two spots in anticipation of that huge effort. I love the way he moves and accelerates, and he is the only 3-year-old to have won carrying as much as 124 pounds. If he can defeat these horses or even run a big race, don’t expect to see him anywhere near No. 8 next week. He continued his sharp series of works at Los Alamitos, drilling 5 furlongs in 1:00 2/5. You never know for sure until they show they’re competitive against open company, but visually, he looks like a star in the making and a potential bargain at 32-1 in the Derby Future Wager.

March 10

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

What the heck. I just wish I had the chutzpah to put him up here last week after stating back on Feb. 3 he was the most impressive 3-year-old I’d seen this year. The simple fact is, this horse has run three flawless and brilliant races in a row and just keeps getting better. In the San Felipe, he wanted out of that gate so badly he got a bit antsy in there, and then broke like one of the Quarter-Horses he’s been stabled with at Los Alamitos. He has a great mind and has proven he doesn’t need the lead or even want it. He was just so much the best and Espinoza had his hands well down on the horse’s neck as he merely cruised through fractions of :45 2/5 and 1:09 2/5 before running everyone into the ground. As I stated earlier, his lead change is so smooth, you can’t even see him switch, and down the backstretch and the homestretch he didn’t deviate an inch off his path. You cannot ask a horse to run any straighter, and he keeps his legs under him perfectly with no wasted action. Then he coasts home from the sixteenth pole to the wire under no urging and still gets a 107 Beyer. This is a horse who paired up “1”s on Thoro-Graph, and that was going into this race. So he has no concept of what a bounce is. In summation, this horse does everything like an exceptional horse and I see no one who deserves the top spot more than him. (See pedigree comments on him in Knocking on the Door).

March 17

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

He’s back in light training and just doing maintenance work, and Sherman is just going to play it by ear regarding his next start, saying there is “a chance” he’ll run in the Santa Anita Derby. This is an old school, blue-collar horse with nine starts and a strong foundation under him. With three monster efforts in a row, there is nothing wrong at all if he regresses a bit in the Santa Anita Derby. The ultimate goal with these preps is to get a horse to peak on the first Saturday in May. Since 1990, Mine That Bird, Street Sense, Monarchos, Real Quiet, Grindstone, Thunder Gulch, Lil E Tee, and Unbridled all took steps backwards in their final prep before winning the Derby, so he has a race to play around with and use a steppingstone. But if Sherman feels it’s best to go eight weeks into the Kentucky Derby with no 1 1/8-mile races in him, then that’s what he obviously feels is best for his horse. But history has shown that horses do not win the Derby who have never had at least one 1 1/8-mile race. The only two in memory who have come remotely close are Risen Star, who was third in 1988, and Eight Belles, who was second to Big Brown in 2008. But Risen Star had five two-turn races under his belt and was gifted enough to win the Preakness and Belmont, and Eight Belles had six two-turn races. Before that, you have to go back to the third-place finish of Tom Rolfe in 1965, who was making his 16th career start in the Derby. Needless to say, it is a very tall order and a lot to ask, but we’ll see what Sherman decides to do.

March 24

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

Good to see him bounce back with a sharp :47 2/5 work, out in 1:00 2/5 without blinkers. He just glided over the ground, cornered beautifully, and Victor Espinoza never moved a muscle on him down the stretch. He did everything effortlessly, throwing his ears around. Sherman, a bit concerned the San Felipe might have taken a little something out of him, indicated he would wait to decide on the Santa Anita Derby. But the colt quickly returned to his old self and all systems were go. With three straight monster efforts since December, and the Santa Anita Derby still to be run, will he be up to a peak performance on Derby Day? There are times when you would actually prefer to see a slight regression, because of how difficult it is to keep running these huge races and still move forward off them. So if he doesn’t dominate his opponents in the Santa Anita Derby the way he’s been doing, but is more workmanlike, that could be just what he needs at this point. He did appear to win the San Felipe under little urging in the final furlong, but when you run that big in fast time, it does take some kind of toll, especially if you keep doing it race after race. For him to keep piling up these runaway victories and huge speed figures without regressing shows what an exceptional horse he is. But no horse can keep that up over a period of time, so it may be time for him to back up just a little in order to re-energize for the Kentucky Derby.

March 31

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

He just keeps looking better by the week. He followed up last week’s sharp work with another brilliant move, breezing a half in a bullet :46 2/5, out 5 furlongs in :59 2/5 and did it under no urging on a loose rein down the stretch. I still cannot find a flaw in him, and it’s kind of scary how much he’s improved and how he carries his form, After running mostly double-digit Thoro-Graph numbers at 2, he has now run three straight races with a figure of “1” or lower, which is pretty remarkable. The only question now is, can he keep up that kind of pace? That is why I said last week, don’t be alarmed if he regresses a bit in the Santa Anita Derby and doesn’t blow his opponents away. The main thing is not to give him too hard a race. It’s great to win the Santa Anita Derby, but it’s not the ultimate goal. Look at what Vicar’s in Trouble did in the Louisiana Derby after losing the Risen Star, finishing a well-beaten third after two monster performances. Candy Boy and Hoppertunity are two tough opponents, and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the step up in competition. If he beats them the same way he’s been beating everyone else, it could either be too much too soon or he’s a freak.

April 7

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

There is absolutely nothing more to say about this horse that I haven’t already said over the past two months. He is simply one of the most special young horses I’ve seen in years, and if the Triple Crown drought is ever to end, this is the kind of horse who will end it. Yes, I’m getting way ahead of myself, but I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen a horse as close to perfection as this guy. For a horse to keep piling up these freakish performances for so long is a rarity in racing today and he actually keeps getting better. My apologies for a little horn tooting, but I have a reason for doing so. Back on Feb. 3 after his Cal Cup Derby victory, I wrote, Cal-bred or no Cal-bred, this was the most impressive 3-year-old in the country, saying, “This horse has such a long fluid stride and levels off so beautifully he’s a joy to watch…you can’t ask a horse to run any straighter down the stretch. He accelerates on his own at the right time, and for a long-striding horse his lead changes are so smooth you can barely see him do it…this horse has absolutely no flaws.” Two months later and nothing has changed. He has run one monster Thoro-Graph number after another without regressing; he has run the best 3-year-olds in California into the ground at the exact same spot each time and with the same push-button burst of speed; he wins under no urging at all; his works are spectacular while under wraps; he’s now won at 4 1/2 furlongs, 5 1/2 furlongs, 7 furlongs, 1 1/16 miles, and 1 1/8 miles and has been racing steadily for an entire year; he’s brilliantly fast, but has a tremendous mind and knows how to harness his speed and when to use it; and his pedigree is inundated with classic winners at 1 1/2 miles from Europe and the U.S. Can a horse possibly keep up this remarkable pace heading into the Derby? In the words of Al Jolson, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Come to think of it, I take back my apology.

April 14

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

Yes, his speed and overall brilliance has been established, but his mind plays a huge part in his success. He has a wonderful relationship with people and knows exactly what he has to do, whether racing or training. Part of that is due to the amount of contact he had with people as a foal. His dam had a difficult time foaling him, suffering lacerations, and she and her foal had to remain in confinement for an extended period of time until she recovered, and he got to interact a great deal with people, while developing quite a personality and becoming very independent. Because he wasn’t able to socialize with the other foals in the beginning, he became more focused on people than he was on horses. To this day, he still has maintained those close ties to people. In his early days on the track at the farm he loved to go out and train every day and always enjoyed what he was doing and learned his lessons like a pro. And he was never sick a day while he was there; not even as much as a slight fever. The quote of the week goes to co-owner Steve Coburn, who had turned down a reported $6 million for the horse before the Santa Anita Derby. When a significantly higher offer came in after the Santa Anita Derby, Coburn’s reply was, “My answer last week was “no” and my answer now is “hell, no.” Some dreams are priceless.

April 21

1 -- California Chrome Art Sherman

Now that the preps are over, we can go over some of the questions pertaining to each horse and what they have to do and prove on May 3. With him, it’s whether he is as effective outside California, especially not having a work over the Churchill Downs track, and how he’ll take dirt in his face. Because of the track he’s been running over and the setup of his races, he is one horse who will need to break alertly and get a good position going into the first turn. Once he can establish his position and put himself in a comfortable spot and appears to be handling the track, it will be his race to lose. Despite what some think, he should have no problem getting the mile and a quarter. Cal-bred or no Cal-bred, his pedigree top and bottom is as strong as anyone’s and is inundated with 1 1/4-mile and 1 1/2-mile grade/group I influences from America and Europe. Once he turns on the afterburners at the five-sixteenths pole, we should know right away what we’re in store for. His last work, a half in :47 4/5, was once again flawless, as he did it all on his own with his ears pricked the entire length of the stretch. It seems as if everything is coming so easy to him now, as indicated by his four straight huge Thoro-Graph numbers. This horse doesn't know what the word "bounce" means.

A Look Back 


California Chrome arrives.


Chrome makes a heckuva great impression.


First morning schooling in the paddock.


Antsy and ready to get moving.


Posing for the cameras.


Checking out the paddock.


Posing just comes natural for him.


My Old Kentucky Chrome.


Striking yet another pose.


Basking in the morning sun.


Finding a new friend in Perfect Drift.


Shulman and Haskin frame the Derby winner.

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