LOUISVILLE, Ky. – People around California Chrome describe him as a curious horse, a fact plainly evident Thursday morning when he galloped with his chestnut face cocked to the side, watching the crowd that was watching him as he completed his routine activities over the Churchill Downs track.
There is a lot for the colt to take in these days, as the eyes of the racing community have been firmly affixed on him since his 5¼-length victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
His status as the Kentucky Derby favorite is unarguable. But perhaps no race is more successful at taking down brilliant runners with its pitfalls than the 1¼-mile classic staring him and 18 of his 3-year-old classmates in the eye Saturday.
Having won his last four races by a combined margin of 24¼ lengths, California Chrome is carrying a level of hype that rivals the chatter Big Brown inspired before his Kentucky Derby victory in 2008.
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While California Chrome’s form has been devoid of holes since he began his winning streak with a 6¼-length victory in the King Glorious Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park on Dec. 22, Derby history is littered with supposedly can’t-lose horses — Easy Goer (1989), Point Given (2001) — doing just that.
Having done his major prerace preparation at trainer Art Sherman’s base at Los Alamitos in California, California Chrome did not conduct a timed workout over the Churchill Downs surface — a routine few horses got away with leading up to their victories on the first Saturday in May.
Though some observers question whether California Chrome can outrun supposed distance limitations in his pedigree, Sherman believes a route of ground is the least of the colt’s problems.
“To me, he can run 1½ miles,” said Sherman, who was the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. “He can run behind horses, he can run in front, he’s shown me things that a good horse does.
“I always have concerns. You’ve got 20 head of horses in the race, sometimes you have the traffic problems, horses backing up in your face and are you going to get through? … I would like to see him no worse than fourth or fifth down the backside. That would be perfect to me.”
The field for the Derby was reduced to 19 runners when trainer Bob Baffert declared Thursday that Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity would miss the race with a suspected bruise in his left-front foot.
Pablo Del Monte, third in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, drew into the field off the also-eligible list but his connections chose not to start him and will look to the May 17 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore instead.
As has become customary this time of year, six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has multiple runners ready for the Kentucky Derby. He will saddle Grade I winners Danza and We Miss Artie, along with graded-stakes winners Intense Holiday and Vinceremos.
Danza launched himself onto the radar with his 4¾-length victory in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 12 while Intense Holiday blew stablemate We Miss Artie away when the two worked in company last weekend.
“In particular, Intense Holiday and Danza have trained really well since they’ve been here,” said Pletcher, who won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver. “Both seem to be peaking at the right time, doing really well.”
Trainer Dale Romans is seeking his first Kentucky Derby triumph and said he has seldom felt as confident leading one over as he does with Grade III winner Medal Count.
Medal Count will be making his third start in 29 days after winning the Grade III Transylvania on April 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and running second to fellow Derby entrant Dance With Fate in the Blue Grass eight days later.
“I feel better than I ever have about any of my chances going into the Derby,” said Romans, who has had four previous starters. “I think that we really fit well with this group. I think he’s peaking at the right time. I think he’s got all the parts that it takes to win a Derby.”
Samraat, winner of two Grade III races at Aqueduct in Jamaica, N.Y., and his rival Uncle Sigh are aiming to join Funny Cide (2003) as the only New York-breds to win the Derby. Meanwhile, Ride On Curlin carries the services of three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.