Last winter California Chrome fooled me. His victories in races restricted to California state-breds featured pace and final times far inferior to pace and final figures of top stakes horses. That’s pretty much what you’d expect from a winner of restricted minor stakes. So despite his trouncing of those rivals, I saw him as a weak Derby prospect at the end of January. But owners, trainers, jockeys and pundits seldom see a complete portrait of a Derby hopeful that early in the year.

We all witnessed another side of this horse with his performance at Santa Anita in the San Felipe Stakes, an open Grade 2 stakes at 8.5 furlongs. Look at the improvement in his pace figs and final quarters from the CalCup Derby to the San Felipe (each point equals 1 length):

Nov…Golden State Juvenile (SA, 8F)  
……..79, 86…Total 165

Jan…Cal Cup Derby (SA, 8.5F)
………80, 92…Total 172
Mar…San Felipe Stakes (SA, 8.5F)
……..94, 90…Total 184

Wow! Is that 12-length improvement for real? That question intrigued many handicappers as they attempted to assess Chrome.

His opponents in the San Felipe included a winless horse, 3 horses with just a maiden win to their credit, and a European debut winner whose best finish in 4 tries against winners was a distant 3rd in a 4-horse race. And Midnight Hawk, winner of the 4-horse Sham Stakes two months earlier (and nothing else since then).

To further tarnish Chrome’s fast clocking, Game On Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap in very fast time on the same day, running the fastest mile and a quarter of his career. Was this just a fast surface making Chrome look like a dynamo?

I reluctantly decided to consider Chrome’s San Felipe time as a legitimate Grade 1 effort. On the strength of that performance, I pegged him as a Silver Standard qualifier. That’s a high standard of performance I describe in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby. The reservations I harbored about the racing surface and weak competition in the San Felipe didn’t matter much. The Santa Anita Derby erased most of my doubts a few weeks later.

Keeping in mind that a figure of 89 (early or late) is “fast,” look at how Chrome’s Santa Anita Derby win stacks up to his other efforts:

Nov…Golden State Juvenile (SA, 8F)
………79, 86….Total 165
Jan…Cal Cup Derby (SA, 8.5F)
………80, 92….Total 172
Mar…San Felipe Stakes (SA, 8.5F)
………94, 90….Total 184
Apr….Santa Anita Derby (SA, 9F)
………86, 98…Total 184

You can see that despite posting a blazing 94 pace figure in the San Felipe and weakening a bit late (90), he still notched a bona fide “fast” figure for his final quarter. In the Santa Anita Derby, Chrome pressed a subpar 86 pace before unleashing a huge move late (a 98 final quarter). The failure of his rivals to be anywhere close to him at the finish of the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby verifies the strength of these figures.

Handicappers expect 3-year-olds to improve as they mature. These figures suggest that California Chrome progressed in leaps and bounds. However, Chrome didn’t “improve” by 12 lengths from the CalCup Derby to the San Felipe Stakes. I’ll exaggerate slightly to make my point: the figures show the difference between a horse jogging (against weak restricted-stakes foes) and a horse actually running.

We saw the same pattern play out from the slowly run Kentucky Derby to the fast 2014 Preakness (fast compared to the times of other Triple Crown hopefuls in the past 40 years). Both the San Felipe and the Preakness contained a rival with tremendous early speed: Midnight Hawk and Social Inclusion, respectively. Chrome improved for sure, but the faster clockings also came from his greater exertion to keep pace with those talented early runners.

What you see here is a true Grade 1 star: he runs fast early and late, he demonstrates patience when asked (slow pace figs followed by superb late runs), and he consistently dominates his competition, even when moving up in class or running harder early.

Scenario #1: California Chrome’s Top Rivals

California Chrome’s winning time for the Santa Anita Derby ranks among the top 10 in the past 25 years. So does his winning time in the Preakness. Check out the company he keeps by virtue of his Santa Anita Derby final time.

SANTA ANITA DERBY
Indian Charlie………….1:47.00 (3rd in 1998 Ky. Derby)
California Chrome…1:47.52 (WON 2014 Ky. Derby)
Real Quiet……………1:47.55 (WON 1998 Ky. Derby)
Sunday Silence……..1:47.60 (WON 1989 Ky. Derby)
Free House…………….1:47.60 (3rd in 2007 Ky. Derby)
Silver Charm………..1:47.65 (WON 2007 Ky. Derby)
Point Given…………….1:47.77
Winning Colors…….1:47.80 (WON 1988 Ky. Derby)
I’ll Have Another…..1:47.88 (WON 2012 Ky. Derby)

Who can compete with a horse of this caliber? Another winner of a fast-early/fast-late race. Like New Year’s Day or Cairo Prince. Ooops. They’re gone. Like Shared Belief. Ooops. Gone. Maybe a lightly raced and improving Constitution or Danza? Candy Boy? Gone. Gone. Gone.

In this year’s Belmont Stakes, only Social Inclusion can handle a Grade 1 pace and still persevere late. Not coincidentally, the Preakness pace and final figures were far superior to those registered in the Kentucky Derby, which excluded Social Inclusion. Those realities establish him as the only obstacle between California Chrome and the Triple Crown.

But California Chrome defeated Social Inclusion in the Preakness, and the longer Belmont Stakes seems like a poor venue for the speed-oriented Social Inclusion to turn the tables. Yet a slow-paced, wire-to-wire theft by Social Inclusion is the most likely path to defeat for Chrome. I can’t see underachieving, late-pounding plodders (like Wicked Strong or Commanding Curve) overtaking a patiently ridden California Chrome in the final 100 yards. If you define the terms accurately, you see that slow doesn’t often defeat fast in Grade 1 races. That said, neither the “early theft” option nor the “late-developing rally” scenario warrants a bet against this very legitimate favorite.

Scenario #1 sees California Chrome prevailing once again, with Social Inclusion possibly filling out the exacta.

[UPDATE: Social Inclusion will not run in the Belmont.]

Scenario #2: California Chrome’s Lack of Quality Rivals

California Chrome’s slow pace and final times in the Kentucky Derby resulted from a lack of quality competition. As mentioned, BC Juvenile winner New Year’s Day never showed up this year (and neither did the Juvenile runner-up and pace-setter, Havana). Later, Holy Bull winner Cairo Prince checked out, as did graded stakes winners Shared Belief, Honor CodeConstitution and Hoppertunity. That’s 7 graded stakes winners—pretty much a full field of topnotch horses on most racing days!

On top of those Derby defections, Social Inclusion, who registered the fastest pace time in a 9-furlong prep race, failed to accumulate the required points to earn a place in the Derby starting gate. The slow Derby final time results from this steady and unusually large drop in the level of competition.

Watch the Kentucky Derby replay. As the horses enter the backstretch you hear, “Victor Espinoza has California Chrome well in hand.” At the top of the stretch, Espinoza finally asks his horse for some run, but only for about 1/16th of a mile. Halfway down the stretch, as they pass the 1/16th pole, Espinoza looks back and admires his 5-length advantage. He lets up on CC and then stands up well before the wire. Yes, California Chrome ran slowly and, yes, he deserved his weak speed figure (a 97 Beyer). Once again, Chrome defeated a subpar field. But once again the other, brighter, side of the coin reflects his complete domination while barely breaking a sweat.

His leisurely Kentucky Derby victory leaves him as one of the freshest Triple Crown hopefuls in a long time. Despite running a lot of races and running hard in the Preakness, he won’t succumb to fatigue or a bounce in form. With three more top rivals (Candy Boy and Pletcher’s Intense Holiday and Danza) skipping the Belmont, Chrome again faces dwindling competition. Scenario #2 points to California Chrome prevailing again, possibly even in a leisurely, geared-down fashion.

Later I’ll compare these scenarios to similar ones in years past, but that might just be an academic exercise. California Chrome is a horse with exceptional talent facing an exceptionally weak field. At least when viewed in this light, that portrait seems destined to become a classic.

−Roger LeBlanc