With the decline of Cairo Prince in the Florida Derby, the favorite's role in the Kentucky Derby seemed up for grabs. In less than two minutes Saturday all of that changed.
California Chrome will likely arrive in Louisville as the favorite after his runaway Santa Anita Derby that threatened the stakes record. Even more impressive was his 5 1/4 length victory over Hoppertunity, who had recently beaten the best Derby contenders in Arkansas.
Candy Boy was third at Santa Anita and all three top finishers seem likely to start in the Kentucky Derby. But the big chestnut, Callfornina Chrome, has people saying this is another Swaps. It helps that trainer Art Sherman was the exercise boy for Swaps when he won the Derby in 1955.
Meanwhile in New York, the Wood Memorial produced a bit of a stunner.
Wicked Strong, who was tabbed as an under the radar Derby contender back in January, suddenly became a very visible blip by beating previously undefeated Samraat and speedy Social Inclusion.
Wicked Strong came from nowhere (actually 6th place on the back stretch) to go four wide and catch the pacemakers down the stretch. Rajiv Maragh took the son of Hard Spun, four wide, in a Derby like move to win 100 points and a trip the backside at Churchill Downs.
Samraat rallied down the stretch to catch Social Inclusion and assure his Derby starting spot, but the lightly race Social Inclusion is on the starting gate bubble with just 20 points.
And so with a new star on the western horizon, we post a new Top Twenty and perhaps California Chrome will be the first Cal bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. And perhaps more unique, he would be the first Derby winner to train at Los Alamitos, previously known for quarter horse racing.
1. California Chrome
In case you're not up to date, he's by Lucky Pulpit, who stands at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Californnia. The stud fee is $2,500. The dam is Love the Chase, who was purchased for $8,000. It's her first foal. See how easy and cheaply you can produce a Derby horse.
I'm dropping him just one place on the list after his second in the Wood Memorial. He chased a pretty stiff pace set by Social Inclusion and then wouldn't quit. He was passed by Wicked Strong but came back to nip the pace setter for second. He'll ship to Louisville and 1-2 could be California versus New York.
A lot of people think this son of Pulpit should be first on the list. Winning the Florida Derby with a brave run down the rail makes Constitution one of the low odds options for the Kentucky Derby. The lightly raced Todd Pletcher trainee beat some very good horses at Gulfstream.
4. Wicked Strong
OK! I'll play along. He's now a Grade One winner and a certain starter in the Derby. But is he a one shot wonder? He got a great trip in the Wood and could be a late developing three year old on the brink of greatness. This is one to watch closely when he works at Churchill.
This is Bob Baffert's best Derby horse pending the the effort by Bayern in the Arkansas Derby. Hoppertunity has already beaten the Arkansas bunch in the Rebel Stakes. And finishing second to California Chrome was not an embarrassment. He will start on May 3.
Moves up based on Baffert's decision to stay in California with Hoppertunity. He faces the same cast of characters in the Arkansas Derby with the addition of Bayern, Conquest Titan, and Commissioner. He'll probably be the Arkansas favorite on Saturday but will a new contender steal the show like the Wood Memorial?
7. General A Rod
He was third in a really solid Florida Derby and has the pedigree to take it farther. He's fast and if he gets a more sensible pace in the Derby (not that likely) he could be right in the mix coming down the stretch. 40 points looks like enough to make the field.
8. Vicar's in Trouble
He won the Louisiana Derby and Ken Ramsey has at least two starters in the Derby. (Maybe three pending the Bluegrass Stakes). But this son of Into Mischief has a 5.00 Dosage Index and despite being second in Derby points, I don't think he's a threat to win.
9. Candy Boy
He was third in the Santa Anita Derby but he was chasing a whirlwind in California Chrome. Who knows how good the California runners up will be when they face horses from other regions? Remember that year when the Cals swept first, second and third. Candy Boy could still give the Derby a sugar high.
10. Intense Holiday
He was second in the Louisiana Derby, beating most of what was a modest field. But you have to give him a chance because he'll be in the Derby field. A little improvement and he could be competitive. I'll bet he beats Vicar's in Trouble in the Derby.
11. Strong Mandate
It's last call time for this son of Tiznow, who still hasn't bloomed for D. Wayne Lukas. He has just 11 Derby points and I think he's a horse that could miss the field or actually win the Derby. He has talent and breeding but hasn't had a break out win this spring.
If you're on backside Derby week and Chitu walks by, you may run to the betting window. He's a beautiful chestnut, he's won at a mile and 1/8 but his Henny Hughes pedigree does not suggest Derby distance. He does have plenty of points and will be part of the Baffert contingent.
13. Ride on Curlin
Something tells me, he hits the board in Arkansas and makes the Derby field. Curly has been very consistent and his local connections from the small barn of Billy Gowan makes a great story. He's another horse that could make a big splash if he puts it all together.
14. Midnight Hawk
Just like Curlin, he's been very consistent and has been hanging around the leader board all winter collecting Derby points. He always runs a respectable race but I see him as a second tier representative of the West Coast.
15. Uncle Sigh
Sign didn't show much in the Wood but he did finish 5th and has 24 points. Indications are, if he gets in, he runs. I think he fits with this group, but may not be good enough to get in the first five.
16. We Miss Artie
He and his owner Ken Ramsey will be mourning when they remove the Polytrack at Keeneland. He won a Grade One at Keeneland last fall and then swept the Polytrack Spiral Stakes at Turfway. The Artie Schiller pedigree indicates a turf specialist. Can he be more than Poly-dimensional?
17. Ring Weekend
The Tampa Bay Derby winner dodged the big races and ran in the Calder Derby because he already has enough points to make the Derby. But at Calder, he finished second. He had a troubled trip at Calder which does not bode well for the 20 horse Derby field.
I toss him in because he'll be the most watched horse in Arkansas this weekend. He has no points, comes with a lot of hype, and needs to hit the board to make the Derby. Think Bodemeister or Constitution. There's so much hype he could even be the favorite in Arkansas.
I include the last two because they still have a shot at the Derby. Winstar would love to get another starter with Commissioner who was third in the Sunland Derby. He needs to hit the board at Arkansas but could make the Pletcher Derby parade.
20. Conquest Titan
He's been all over the Derby radar this spring for trainer Mark Casse. The Titan was second in the Holy Bull Stakes and 4th at the Tampa Bay Derby . Still he only has 9 Derby points and carries his final hopes to Oaklawn Park. He's a Birdstone, so if it rains, his chances go up.
And so we near the end of the Derby Trail. The Arkansas Derby should produce at least three Kentucky Derby starters, and the Bluegrass Stakes will produce some proven Polytrack runners, who will try the dirt if they make the field.