Here we go again. Let the questions begin regarding California Chrome’s attempt June 7 to become the first horse since 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown.
The doubts that nipped at the heels of this son of Lucky Pulpit heading into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) will be back as he faces the “Test of the Champion.” Can he get the distance? Will the 11⁄2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I) be the barrier his genes cannot carry him across?
Critics will continue to scrutinize the performance record of Lucky Pulpit, a son of Pulpit who never won beyond 51⁄2 furlongs and never started in a race beyond nine furlongs. Then there is California Chrome’s dam, Love the Chase, who won at a mile but had only that single win in an $8,000 maiden claiming race at Golden Gate Fields.
Family offers insight into what an individual might be, but genetics is funny. NBA great Michael Jordan is six feet, six inches tall while his parents were described in a biography by David Porter as “average height and non-athletic.” Any perceived distance questions related to California Chrome’s actual ability would seem to have been answered by his easy win in the Derby and his equally convincing victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Does this mean 12 furlongs is within reach?
Similar questions were raised in 2004 when Smarty Jones made his bid for the Triple Crown. Roy and Pat Chapman’s homebred is by miler stallion Elusive Quality, who won at 11⁄16 miles but whose average winning distance was 7.17 furlongs. Elusive Quality’s best races were in the one-mile Poker Handicap (gr. IIIT) and the seven-furlong Jaipur Handicap (gr. IIIT). In addition, Smarty was out of I’ll Get Along, a daughter of 1986 champion sprinter Smile. I’ll Get Along won at a maximum distance of a mile and 70 yards and had an average winning distance of 6.57 furlongs.
Smarty Jones came into the Kentucky Derby undefeated and won by 23⁄4 lengths, then decimated the Preakness field by 111⁄2 lengths. In the Belmont, distance didn’t seem to be the issue with Smarty Jones. He finished a game second by a length to Birdstone, who outkicked him in the final sixteenth of a mile.
The outcome of Smarty’s Belmont was the result of racing luck, not any genetic limitation. Pedigree analyst Avalyn Hunter has observed that Smarty Jones possessed such exceptional balance and athleticism that he outperformed what he otherwise would have appeared incapable of on paper. Smarty also did have some stamina influences not too far back in his pedigree, through second damsire Foolish Pleasure (winner of the 1975 Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness and Belmont), and third damsire French champion Herbager (winner of the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud at 2,400 meters, about 11⁄2 miles, and the 2,100-meter Prix du Jockey Club, French Derby).
Like Smarty, California Chrome has stamina influences through his female family, which has now produced four Kentucky Derby winners. Love the Chase’s tail-female line traces back to Uncle’s Lassie, the dam of 1929 Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen. Uncle’s Lassie’s daughter Betty Derr is the second dam of Iron Liege, who won the 1957 Derby, and the third dam of Swaps, who won the Derby in 1955.
It is also worth noting that Lucky Pulpit’s distance limitations may not have been genetic but the result of a respiratory infection he had early in his 3-year-old season, according to Hunter’s research.
California Chrome appears to be an outstanding individual who relishes a route of ground and is poised mentally and physically to take on more.
The real question is how he’ll handle the Belmont Park surface. Among the 12 horses that are now being pointed for the final Triple Crown test, six have already performed well at Big Sandy. Samraat and Danza both broke their maidens at first asking at Belmont, while Wicked Strong broke his maiden there in his second start. Tonalist and Commissioner finished one-two, respectively, in the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II), and Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin finished third Oct. 5 in the Foxwoods Champagne Stakes (gr. I) behind Havana and Honor Code.
Trainer Art Sherman didn’t seem too concerned following the Preakness, describing California Chrome as “phenomenal” in the way he keeps stepping up and meeting every challenge. Despite the new track and the added distance, he expressed every confidence the colt will continue to excel.
“I think when we get to Belmont this horse is going to run big,” Sherman said after the Preakness. “I really do.”
We do, too.