California Chrome has familiar Derby story

By Dan Liebman Published:

On Feb. 23, 2013 I was seated in a dining room at Fair Grounds racecourse when they ran the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

I was watching the simulcast on a tiny screen, but a big horse caught my eye as he moved to the lead. His name was Orb.

Five weeks later, Orb won the Florida Derby. I knew if he trained well the next month, he had a big shot to win the Kentucky Derby — which he did.

This year it was March 8 when I first spotted a horse I thought could win the Derby. His name is California Chrome, and he was running on the other coast, at Santa Anita.

I actually missed the live running of the San Felipe Stakes, but watched a replay later that night. California Chrome not only won easy, but, like Orb, looked like an improving horse that would only get better as he progressed toward the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter.

A month later in the Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome made it four in a row, bounding home 5 1/4 lengths to stamp himself as the Derby favorite.

Orb and California Chrome have something in common in addition to the four-race win streaks they brought to Louisville.

Not that a handicapper would select a horse just on this, but both Orb and California Chrome were/are trained by men it is easy to root for.

Shug McGaughey, who trained Orb, is a Lexington native who had already established himself as one of the best to ever train Thoroughbreds. But he had one thing missing from his resume: a Derby win.

Art Sherman, who trains California Chrome, is a delightful man, who at age 77 has never started a horse in the Derby, though he was the regular exercise rider of Swaps, with whom he rode on a rail car to Louisville in 1955, when they won the Derby.

Sherman took out his jockey’s license in 1957 and won more than 1,600 races before turning to training. He can become the oldest conditioner of a Derby winner should California Chrome win Saturday.

Picking a Derby horse is about much more than seeing an impressive runner two months prior to the race and watching him develop. You still have to size up the rest of the field.

For the second straight year I have done that, and simply can’t find a horse I like better, or think is as fast and talented, as the one I became enamored with months earlier.

I like Derby horses that had a solid foundation as a 2-year-old. Orb made four starts at 2 (winning one), while California Chrome made seven starts last year (winning three).

I like Derby horses that have tactical speed, where the pace of the race won’t necessarily define what they must do. Sure, California Chrome has speed, but he doesn’t have to be on the lead, his last couple of races just set up that way.

Depending on how the Derby unfolds, Victor Espinoza can place California Chrome where he needs to, either on the lead or a bit off the pace. But he won’t be far back. Derby winners almost always are within a few lengths of the lead when they turn for home.

It’s tough to pick a Derby winner, obviously even tougher to do so two years in a row.

Make it California Chrome, Tapiture and Wicked Strong. I admit I’m not thrilled with Wicked Strong’s outside post but still think he has a chance to close ground and get a piece.

For the record, I was set a week ago to pick Wildcat Red second, but his workout this week was too slow for my liking.

Also for the record, I was not going to pick Hopportunity in my top three, so his defection Thursday was not a decision in my selections.

For the mythical $100 wager: $10 daily double, My Miss Sophia with California Chrome; $6 daily double, Aurelia’s Belle with California Chrome; $40 to win, California Chrome; $5 exactas, California Chrome over Tapiture, Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve; $1 trifecta box, California Chrome, Tapiture, Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve; and $5 to win, Tapiture.

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