California Chrome Art Sherman
Lucky Pulpit—Love the Chase, by Not For Love
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 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).
Cairo Prince Kiaran McLaughlin
Pioneerof the Nile—Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull
Sometimes, you can stand tall and gain in stature simply by not moving at all. It’s looking more and more like McLaughlin did the right thing by passing the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and letting everyone knock each other out. He’s now inherited the role of Derby favorite on most polls, basically by taking it easy and turning in a series of half-mile breezes, with one sharp five-eighths in :59 4/5 tossed in. During that time we’ve lost Top Billing, Shared Belief, Havana, Indianapolis, and the promising Hartford and Mosler from the Derby trail, not to mention setbacks to Honor Code, Bayern, and Mexikoma, who have to play catch-up and have only one race to secure enough points to assure getting in the Derby. And what Cairo Prince has in his favor is that the Florida Derby seems to be setting up perfectly for his high cruising speed and his ability to sit off any kind of pace and pounce on the opposition. His pedigree doesn’t exactly shout 1 1/4 miles, but if he’s good enough I don’t think it’s going to hinder his chances to go that far under the right setup.
Honor Code Shug McGaughey
A.P. Indy—Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat
I have mixed feelings about his change of plans to run in a March 12 allowance race. On one hand, I can certainly understand why McGaughey would prefer not having to ship to Oaklawn. On the other hand, I’m concerned about him getting enough out of the race to have him battle tested come the first Saturday in May. He’s already had a physical setback, which you never want to see, and is fortunate to still have sufficient time and racing to be ready for a top effort in the Derby, especially with the foundation he built at 2. But do the brilliantly fast colt, Social Inclusion, with only one six-furlong maiden romp in his career, or the hard-knocking allowance horse We’re All Set have the class to even make Honor Code work up a sweat? McGaughey said he’d love a nice easy race in case he decides to run him back in the Florida Derby. But he’ll have to have a real stiff test in the Florida Derby to toughen him up for such an arduous test on May 3. He did have an excellent half-mile sharpener in :47 4/5 Sunday in case he needs to chase Social Inclusion, so perhaps this race will turn out well in the long run.
Candy Boy John Sadler
Candy Ride—She’s an Eleven, by In Excess
It’s a good thing he’s unable to watch TV, because the San Felipe certainly wouldn’t have done much to boost his confidence for his upcoming clash with California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). He continued his steady works with a 5-furlong drill in 1:01 1/5. Like Cairo Prince and Honor Code and so many others, he’ll have only two Kentucky Derby preps, but at least he has a strong 2-year-old foundation. Sorry to say, at this point, I just don’t see much competition for the big two in California other than perhaps Chitu, who ran lights out against Candy Boy in the Lewis. I can’t see Baffert subjecting the lightly raced Bayern to a clash against these two and then trying to make the Kentucky Derby off only three career starts. So, right now, the pickins are pretty slim out there.
Intense Holiday Todd Pletcher
Harlan’s Holiday—Intensify, by Unbridled’s Song
Keeping sharp, with a half-mile breeze in :47 4/5, third fastest of 71 works at the distance. He just keeps improving. The Louisiana Derby is still three weeks away, but as of now, it looks like he’ll have Albano to catch again, and we’ll see if Hoppertunity returns. Many of the precocious 2-year-olds and fast early 3-year-olds are not around when they run for the roses, and that is why you have to appreciate a horse like this and the patient way he’s been handled by Todd Pletcher and owner Starlight Racing. Each race has been a progression, with the colt taking baby steps forward until he was ready to hit the big important races, and now he has catapulted himself onto the list of leading Derby contenders. If his one race, one step forward pattern continues, he should be ready for a peak effort on Derby Day, especially with the foundation he’s built along the way.
Tapiture Steve Asmussen
Tapit—Free Spin, by Olympio
This is the kind of horse you like more and more the closer we get to the big final preps. He’s sort of like the Arkansas version of Cairo Prince, with his good tactical speed and ability to sit behind a solid pace and then kick in and open up on his opponents. He’s also made an excellent transition from 2 and 3. As an old schooler, I like the fact that the Winchell family bred him, his dam, and his granddam, as well as his broodmare sire. There is something refreshing about continuity these days, when homebreds are becoming rarer by the year. He should get a good test in the Rebel, facing the likes of Strong Mandate, Ride On Curlin, and Kobe’s Back, even though he soundly defeated the first two in the Southwest Stakes. Both should be tougher this time. Also, Asmussen is up for the Hall of Fame for the first time this year, and let’s remember that Wayne Lukas, Neil Drysdale, and Gary Stevens all won the Kentucky Derby the same year they were elected to the Hall of Fame.
Samraat Rick Violette
Noble Causeway—Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie
The bottom line with this guy is, he is undefeated in five career starts, he’s fast, he’s resilient, and he has the heart of a lion. Not only has he come out on top in two gut-wrenching battles with a very fast horse, he’s given away weight and he’s made five plane flights this year totaling 5,500 miles. One of the reasons he’s been able to handle everything thrown at him is, he’s such a laid-back colt, when he was growing up on the farm his nickname was Cool Hand Luke. Not only can he beat you in an all out street fight, he can thrash lesser opponents, as indicated by his average winning margin of 8 1/4 lengths in his three races against New York-breds. It was pretty amazing to see him engaged in such a grueling stretch duel and not being touched with the whip or even having a cross thrown on him; just a straight hand ride. So far, there hasn’t been anything he can’t do. His outcross pedigree is a little too abstruse to evaluate as far as going 1 1/4 miles, so we’ll just have to play that by ear.
General a Rod Mike Maker
Roman Ruler—Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer
The more you watch his races the more impressive he becomes. He handles dirt and Polytrack and is a very efficient mover on both surfaces. He’s had four different jockeys in four races and has run huge for all of them. He can battle on the lead or make a huge run from far back, as he did in his career debut, when he turned in a sweeping six-wide move on the turn, going from six lengths back to two in front in a quarter mile. He’s shown a lot more early lick since the addition of blinkers after his maiden score, in which he was very green, ducking in at the three-sixteenths pole. In his battle with Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth, there were five lead changes, and he was beaten only by the bob of a head. You’ll find classic winners or dams of classic winners from four different countries in his female family alone.
Uncle Sigh Gary Contessa
Indian Charlie—Cradlesong, by Pine Bluff
It’s amazing to find two New York-breds as brilliant as Samraat and Uncle Sigh developing such s heated rivalry on the Derby trail and dominating the New York-based horses. This colt has had the disadvantage of breaking inside Samraat in both the Withers and Gotham, and took all the worst of it in the Gotham, chasing a very fast and tough In Trouble, with Samraat breathing down his neck. Then, he was in so tight, getting bumped from both sides, in the stretch, Corey Nakatani couldn’t go to the whip even if he wanted to. I don’t think we’ve seen anything near the best of him. We should see that when he can get a clear outside trip and rate off the pace. This colt actually has a stronger distance pedigree than Samraat, at least on the dam side. His broodmare sire, Pine Bluff, won the Preakness and was narrowly beaten by A.P. Indy in the Belmont. His female family includes names such as A.P. Indy. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Fappiano, and he traces to The Minstrel, winner of the English and Irish Derbys.
Kobe's Back John Sadler
Flatter—Well, by Well Decorated
Normally, I would be reluctant to include a horse who has not won beyond seven furlongs at this point, but his San Vicente (gr. II) victory was so impressive visually, I have to feel he will not have a problem going two turns, especially with his strong tail-female family. His acceleration on the far turn and in the stretch, and the ease with which he drew away to win by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:21 4/5 suggests he is getting really good right now. His 10th-place finish in the CashCall Futurity was a throw out, as he ducked way to the outside from the 12 post, was eight-wide into the first turn and then had to check sharply down the backstretch, dropping out of contention. I’m not crazy about broodmare sire Well Decorated for distance, but his maternal great-grandsire and great-great-grandsire both won the Travers, with the latter, Temperence Hill, adding the Belmont Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Suburban Handicap. And that tail-female family traces to Nodouble, one of the toughest horses I ever saw, who won four major stakes at 1 1/4 miles -- Santa Anita Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, and Hawthorne Gold Cup twice -- and also captured the Met Mile, Arkansas Derby, Californian, and upset Damascus in the Michigan Mile and an Eighth as a 3-year-old.
Tamarando Jerry Hollendorfer
Bertrando—Tamarack Bay, by Dehere
It’s time he was rewarded for all his accomplishments. He’s finished in the money in his last nine starts, seven of them stakes, following a fourth in a maiden race. He’s won or place in three grade I’s and has won or placed at six different distances on dirt and synthetic. The only three horses to finish ahead of him since last November have been Shared Belief, California Chrome, and Candy Boy. In 10 career starts he has closed strongly in every one of them. After the series of setbacks to his stablemate, champion Shared Belief, Hollendorfer certainly deserves a shot to get back to Churchill Downs with a live Derby threat. Could he be an Iron Leige to Shared Belief’s Gen. Duke or a Swale to Shared Belief’s Devil’s Bag? One thing, we do know, he is a horse to be respected and admired for his consistency and versatility and for trying hard every time he steps in the gate. He turned in a solid six-furlong work in 1:14 flat at Golden Gate.
Strong Mandate D. Wayne Lukas
Tiznow—Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister
The only reason I put him back in the Top 12 is because he’s running next week in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and he’s done enough in his career to warrant another shot. But I did not like the way he switched leads five times in the stretch and was all over the racetrack, trying to get out the whole way. Perhaps he just got tired after losing ground early and needed the race. I’ll give him that one lapse, as he did seem to find his best stride in the closing yards, finishing six lengths ahead of third-place finisher Ride On Curlin. He also worked a slow five furlongs in 1:03 3/5. Strong Mandate’s best races have been when he’s stalking the pace, where he can grind his opponents down as opposed to dropping back early and trying to catch them. His Champagne is still a puzzler, even with being taken out of his running style. But his third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile still I believe was the best losing effort in the entire Breeders’ Cup. Until this colt can develop some consistency, both in his performance and professionalism, he will remain a bit of an enigma.
Knocking At The Door
Continuing on CALIFORNIA CHROME, his consensus ranking on the Louisville Courier-Journal media poll is sixth, with only one person ranking him higher than #3. Normally, I would be among those still not sure if this is a Derby horse, based on a pedigree no one has heard of and the distinct possibility that the San Felipe was too fast and too brilliant an effort this early. I have seen horses do what he did on a fast track in the San Felipe before. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Consolidator blew his field away in 2005, winning by 6 1/2 lengths in 1:40 flat. He then was beaten 13 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes and never ran again. Among those he annihilated that day was eventual Derby winner Giacomo. Then in 2011, Premier Pegasus won the San Felipe with an incredible move, winning by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:41 1/5 and never ran again.
But the reason I ranked California Chrome No. 1 is that he has already shown he can run multiple fast races, winning by big margins, and not regress, and he was totally geared down the final sixteenth in the San Felipe.
Regarding his seemingly unknown pedigree, his sire, Lucky Pulpit, is by Pulpit, out of a mare by Cozzene, and all Cozzene did was sire the winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Breeders’ Cup Turf. Lucky Pulpit’s tail-female family traces to Prince Blessed, who won the Hollywood Gold Cup and placed in four grade I equivalent stakes from 1 1/4 miles to 1 3/4 miles. He also sired Ole Bob Bowers, the sire of John Henry.
As for California Chrome’s female family, his broodmare sire, Not For Love, is a full-brother to Travers and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Rhythm. His dam also is inbred (Rasmussen Factor) to the great Hall of Fame filly and top producer Numbered Account, a daughter of Buckpasser. And, finally, his tail-female family traces to Sir Ivor, winner of the English Derby and Washington D.C. International; Vaguely Noble, winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe; and Ribot, two-time winner of the Arc de Triomphe.
So, the bottom line is, I’m just not seeing any reason not to rank him on top, based on all he has going for him, not to mention a definite Derby Gods candidate in 77-year-old Art Sherman, who for those who didn’t know, used to exercise a pretty fast horse named Swaps, accompanying the colt to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby nearly 60 years ago.
Filling the last couple of spots on the Top 12 was particularly difficult this week. I hated taking CONQUEST TITAN off, because I’m not sure he handled that track, and he was making a strong run along the inside and about ready to move into contention when he had to steady briefly running up behind Vinceremos. He didn’t have a clear run until he was able to slip through on the inside in the stretch, and looked to have a good shot at getting second, but could not get by Vinceremos and Surfing USA, who actually starting easing away from him slightly nearing the wire. So, I can excuse his performance because of the trip he had and possibly the surface, but he just wasn’t able to sustain his run and pass the two Pletcher horses, and that is supposed to be his strength. I still believe in this colt’s ability and feel he’s going to have his day, but for now I’m just going to play it by ear with him and see if I get inspired to put him back in the Top 12.
I also had to drop another colt I like a lot, MEXIKOMA, who came down with a lung infection and fever and is not scheduled to return to the work tab until March 22, with another work on the 29th. He will either then go for the Wood Memorial, or if he needs another week and another work, he could wait for the Arkansas Derby. He is another I’ll just monitor to see how he’s progressing.
Two talented horses I am keeping off for various reasons are BAYERN and CONSTITUTION. Not only was Bayern forced to scratch from the San Felipe, he like Constitution can only hope to have three career starts going into the Derby and I just feel that is really pushing it. The Baffert horse I’m really looking forward to seeing run again is HOPPERTUNITY, who I believe will improve dramatically off his last troubled effort and put himself right in the Derby picture. I still feel this is a very talented colt. He turned in a sharp half-mile work in :47 2/5.
Two horses who could very well wind up in the Top 12 in the weeks to come are RING WEEKEND and KID CRUZ, both impressive stakes winners over the weekend. The only thing preventing them jumping on to list right away is the maturity factor. Both horses have a few kinks still to work out. Kid Cruz has a powerful engine and his spectacular move in the Private Terms was lost in all the hoopla of so many big races last weekend. I first took notice of him when Bill Mott put him in for a $50,000 claiming tag off only one poor grass performance and he just inhaled his rivals to win by six lengths and was claimed by Linda Rice. He is heading for the Wood Memorial next and I suspect he will be on the Dozen before then.
Ring Weekend has improved dramatically since being gelded last fall, but he still has problems changing leads. He was late switching two races back and only did so after Alan Garcia had to make him do it, and he didn’t switch at all at Tampa. In all six of his career starts he has lost ground from the eighth pole to the wire. That pattern should end as he matures and learns to put the finishing touches on his races. I do like his action, as he gets that head and shoulder low and reaches out very nicely. He, like Kid Cruz, could be ready to emerge as stars by the first Saturday in May. But for now, I’ll wait just a little bit longer before putting them in the Top 12.
VINCEREMOS may not be the fastest 3-year-old, but he continues to demonstrate his gameness every race. He has shown time and again he’s a fighter who doesn’t like to be passed, and once again he dug in tenaciously in the Tampa Bay Derby to hold off Surfing USA and Conquest Titan for second, and actually seemed to level off in the closing yards when it was too late to catch Ring Weekend.
Also coming close to cracking the Top 12 this week was IN TROUBLE, a close third in the Gotham. I just don’t know how good this horse is or if his running style suits the Derby off only four career starts. He couldn’t have run a gutsier race coming off a long layoff and never having been farther than six furlongs. Will he move forward in the Wood Memorial or was he just razor sharp for his debut. Every one of his races has been outstanding and I believe this is a very fast, talented horse who should move forward in the Wood. He does have a number of solid stamina influences, so distance shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.
Some people have inquired why General a Rod is on the Top 12 and not WILDCAT RED, who nipped him in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Wildcat Red, who has proven to be one tough fighter, is by a sprinting sire, out of a classic, stamina-laden female family, so it’s difficult to figure out which side will prevail going 1 1/4 miles. General a Rod just seems to be more ratable, and once Wildcat Red can do the same going two turns he will jump onto the list. I have no doubt he’s going to run another big race in the Florida Derby. It’s just a matter of how he does it.
BOBBY’S KITTEN won an allowance race on the grass at Tampa Bay, and did it in typical Bobby’s Kitten style. He wants to go early and it’s not easy reining him in. He likely will get another prep in the Blue Grass Stakes and if he runs big will go into the Derby never having run on dirt. One horse who looked very impressive breaking his maiden on the grass was the More Than Ready colt PICOZZA, who put in a powerful run to win by 5 1/2 lengths in 1:47 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.
A sleeper to watch out for in the Rebel is RIDE ON CURLIN, who was forced about eight-wide in the Southwest, eventually finishing a well-beaten third. We know what this colt is capable of from his fast-closing third in the Champagne Stakes, and if he ever runs back to that race he can compete with anyone. VICAR’S IN TROUBLE has been shipped to Miker Maker’s barn at Gulfstream, and we’ll see if he stays to run in the Florida Derby. Another looking to rebound off a defeat is COMMISSIONER, who breezed a half in :49 1/5.
Smarty Jones winner TANZANITE CAT is a possibility for the Rebel, but there is a chance he’ll wait for either the Sunland Park Derby or the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn.
Nick Zito hopes to leap back on the Derby trail with Swale winner SPOT, and is thinking of stretching him out in the Florida Derby.
Tom Amoss said he will add blinkers to Delta Jackpot winner RISE UP, but has not decided where the colt will run next. COMMANDING CURVE worked six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 in company with Golden Soul in preparation for the Louisiana Derby. Robby Albarado, who was aboard for the work, will ride.