If you haven’t paid attention to horse racing since last year’s Triple Crown season, the sport is abuzz about a talented throwback of a horse named California Chrome, who will enter today’s Kentucky Derby with four straight wins by a total of 24 ¼ lengths.
While the trend in racing has been toward fewer starts for young horses, California Chrome raced seven times at age 2 and has won all three of his races this season. His 10 career starts are the most of any of the 19 3-year-old Thoroughbreds entered in today’s race.
He also has compelling story lines. He will try to become the first California-bred since Decidedly in 1962 to win the Kentucky Derby. In a sport and race dominated by Kentucky-bred horses — they’ve won the Derby 106 times, including nine straight — California Chrome will try to become the fourth Cal-bred to win the race.
One of those previous Cal-bred winners, Swaps, had a companion on his train ride from California to Louisville for the 1955 Derby in then-young exercise rider Art Sherman. The now-77-year-old Sherman is the trainer of California Chrome.
As a fan of the sport, I would love to see California Chrome replicate his winning Santa Anita Derby performance when jockey Victor Espinoza geared him down through the stretch as he easily overpowered his rivals. It’s a great story, and a Derby victory would ensure the sport a particularly compelling new star.
But as someone who also wagers on horse racing, it’s rarely a good idea to take a horse who figures to be in the 3-1 range in a 19-horse field where racing luck can play havoc. That had me searching for the horse most likely to knock off California Chrome and I landed on Wicked Strong, who will break from the outside in the large field.
Not that I’m going way out on a limb here. Wicked Strong enters the Derby off his best race to date, a score in the April 5 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, where he seized the lead late and drew off to a 3 1/2-length score. That very impressive effort would be overshadowed later that day when California Chrome easily extended his win streak at Santa Anita Park.
The outside Derby post is a concern, but Wicked Strong doesn’t figure to be near the lead early, so jockey Rajiv Maragh should have a chance to gradually settle into a spot while the early runners fight things out and potentially tire themselves. There appears to be a lot of horses who like to run early in this field, similar to the Wood Memorial scenario. As those horses tire themselves early, it should set up Wicked Strong late.
As Blood-Horse reported, Wicked Strong has his own interesting story line. His owners, a Massachusetts-based partnership named Centennial Farms, headed by Donald Little Jr., wanted to tribute last year’s victims and the city of Boston’s efforts following last year’s Boston Marathon terrorist attack. When they discovered the name Boston Strong already had been taken by an owner with similar goals, they decided on the adverb Bostonians find handy in any situation to add emphasis to an adjective, “Wicked.”
If you’re looking for a longer-priced horse, Dance With Fate, a large, dark horse, has handled the Churchill Downs surface brilliantly in the mornings and enters off a top-level victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Dance With Fate is listed 20-1 on the morning-line odds, largely because his biggest wins have come on synthetic surfaces, which mix dirt and wax in an effort to improve safety, rather than traditional dirt.
But based on his morning gallops on the Churchill Downs dirt, I think Dance With Fate will like the Derby surface.
As you choose a winner for this year’s Derby, whether it be for fun or a wager, it looks like you’ll have to start with an East vs. West battle: a California-bred who won California’s biggest races against the winner of New York’s biggest Kentucky Derby prep with Boston-based owners.
I’m expecting a wicked good result.
Frank’s picks: 1. Wicked Strong; 2. Dance With Fate; 3. California Chrome.
Frank Angst is a staff writer for Blood-Horse magazine and former writer for the Charleston Gazette.