By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
Along the road to the Kentucky Derby, it sometimes becomes clear that the top three-year-olds in a particular region of the country are clearly superior to their rivals in other states. In 2012, the supremacy of the California-based runners became clear as they dominated prep races across the nation, particularly in Arkansas, where the Bob Baffert-trained trio of Bodemeister, Secret Circle, and Castaway swept the graded stakes races. That domination would continue through the Triple Crown as California-based runners ran 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, 1-2-3 in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont.
A similar situation played out last year as California colts dominated not only the Triple Crown, but the remainder of the season as well. California Chrome led the charge by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, while fellow Californians Shared Belief, Bayern, and Hoppertunity made headlines with victories in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Pacific Classic (gr. I), Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I), Clark Handicap (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II), Rebel Stakes (gr. II), and Los Alamitos Derby (gr. II).
The recent trend of California domination is something new. Up until recently, Florida has been the place where top three-year-olds spend the winter—Kentucky Derby winners Barbaro (2006), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), Super Saver (2010), Animal Kingdom (2011), and Orb (2013) all prepped in the Sunshine State prior to winning the Run for the Roses.
Now, it’s too early to claim that there has been a shift in the location where top Derby horses winter, but at this stage, I have to think that the California-based three-year-olds are poised to dominate the Triple Crown yet again in 2015. The evidence began when the top East coast juveniles Carpe Diem and Daredevil were easily defeated in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), a race in which Texas Red romped to victory. Now, Texas Red is a very talented colt, and there can be no denying that he stepped up with a very big effort in the Breeders’ Cup. But entering the race, he was no better than the third-best juvenile in California behind American Pharoah and Calculator, both of which missed the Juvenile with minor injuries.
The strength of the California juveniles was further confirmed when Juvenile Turf Sprint Stakes winner Ocho Ocho Ocho shipped east and posted a gritty victory in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III) at Delta Downs. One week later, Bob Baffert’s promising colt Dortmund shipped to Churchill Downs and absolutely crushed a good field in a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs. A few weeks later, the talented Eastern colt Mr. Z—who had been beaten a nose in the Delta Downs Jackpot—shipped west for the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) and was beaten to the wire by Dortmund and another California runner, Firing Line.
And those aren’t the only promising California-based runners gearing up for the Triple Crown! There’s no telling how good the California-bred Acceptance might be, as he is virtually unchallenged in three starts thus far, including a three-length victory in the King Glorious Stakes at Los Alamitos. Bolo has never run on dirt, but the manner in which he won the one-mile Eddie Logan Stakes on the Santa Anita turf suggests that he could be a very special horse. And on Saturday, Calculator returned to action in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita and romped by 4 ¼ lengths, signaling that he will be a force to reckon with on the Triple Crown trail this year.
Granted, a lot can change between now and the first Saturday in May. Horse can get hurt or fail to progress as three-year-olds, while other horses in other parts of the country can do exactly the opposite, getting stronger with every month and arriving in Louisville fit and ready to run the greatest races of their lives. But if you asked me where the top three-year-olds will be based this year, I would answer with confidence that they are based in California, and that may be something to keep in mind as the top prep races unfold during the next few months.