The Turf Debut of California Chrome

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

On Saturday, the very talented and very popular Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner California Chrome will give turf a try for the first time in the $300,000 Hollywood Derby (gr. I) at Del Mar, a race that could secure him honors as Horse of the Year and Champion 3yo Male if he wins. But while this race promises to be a highlight of Saturday’s racing action, it is by no means the only major race on the agenda! Also deserving special attention is the $500,000 Cigar Mile (gr. I) at Aqueduct, a race that has drawn seven graded stakes winners. It’s going to be a terrific day of racing, so let’s start handicapping!

Cigar Mile (gr. I)

This has always been one of my favorite end-of-season races, because it typically draws a very strong field that mixes sprinters and stayers over a one-turn mile that anyone can win. This year is no exception, with Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) 2-3-4 finishers Secret Circle, Private Zone, and Bourbon Courage taking on proven route horses like Woodward Stakes (gr. I) winner Itsmyluckyday and Curlin Stakes winner Transparent.

In general, I really like the chances of morning line favorite Secret Circle. He ran a huge race in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, rallying strongly to fall just a half-length short in his second start off a lengthy layoff. He could be even sharper in his third start back, and the fact that he has turned in a trio of :59-and-change five-furlong works since the Breeders’ Cup suggests this is indeed the case. The distance is the main question, but although he has been strictly a six-furlong sprinter during the last year or so, he did win the 8.5-furlong Rebel Stakes (gr. II) in March 2012, as well as the one-mile Southwest Stakes (gr. III) that same year. Additionally, with the one-turn nature of the Cigar Mile making it more of a sprint than a route, I don’t think Secret Circle will have any trouble stretching out in distance this Saturday. In fact, I think I’ll take him as my selection and hope that he rises from his 2-1 morning line price.

So who might I include in the exotics? I’m going to take a stand against the runners from the Kelso Handicap (gr. II)—Vyjack and Itsmyluckyday—because I don’t think Vyjack is going to get a setup that’s as good as he had when winning the Kelso, and also because I think Itsmyluckyday is better going longer and may be run off his feet early by Private Zone.

Speaking of Private Zone, he finished second in this race last year after leading through the first seven furlongs, and he is likely to find himself on the lead once again after drawing post one. You can’t knock his current form—he won the Vosburgh (gr. I) two starts back and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint—and although there are other speedy runners in this race, I think Private Zone is quite a bit quicker than the others, and will find himself on an easier lead than some might expect. From there, I expect to see him hang around for a top-three finish.

Godolphin’s Transparent has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, including last time out when he broke a track record in an allowance race at Belmont Park, and a peak effort would definitely put him in the mix. The question is, which Transparent will show up? The one that was soundly beaten in all three of his graded stakes starts? Or the one that broke a track record? I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt in only his second U.S. start as a four-year-old, but he strikes me as the type that is either going to run huge or finish well up the track.

Rounding out my exotic selections is Bourbon Courage, who unleashed a terrific turn-of-foot in the final furlong of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint to gain an incredible ten lengths on the leaders. He seems like a new horse after being cut back to one-turn races, and with his back class at nine furlongs, I think the one-turn mile will prove perfect for him. He signaled his readiness with a bullet :46 4/5 breeze at Keeneland on November 23rd, and seems primed for another sharp effort at around 10-1. Actually, if his morning line price holds up, forget what I said about Secret Circle being my selection—I like Bourbon Courage almost as well, and at five times the price, I think that’s more than good value!

Hollywood Derby (gr. I)

The question seems pretty simple—if California Chrome takes to the turf, he is the class of this six-horse field and should win with ease. But that’s a pretty big if.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of California Chrome, and I would love to see him win on Saturday. But as the 4-5 favorite against some pretty good horses, and racing over a surface he has never run on before, I feel like I have to take a stand against him. It’s part of the handicapper’s honor code, or something. :)

My selection to pull the upset is Lexie Lou, an Ontario-bred filly that won the ten-furlong Queen’s Plate Stakes against colts back in July. She possesses a very strong stretch kick, and demonstrated that she can win away from Woodbine when she dominated the one-mile Autumn Miss Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita last month. In that race, she ran her final quarter in about :23 flat, and if she’s within a couple of lengths of California Chrome at the top of the stretch on Saturday, a stretch run like that might be good enough to reel him in.

There are plenty of other terrific graded stakes races scheduled to be run on Saturday, including the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and Remsen Stakes (gr. II) for up-and-coming Kentucky Derby contenders. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these and other races in the comments section of this post—I hope you’ll join me!

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