Past the Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
Does Chrome Rust?
Saturday marks the return of this year’s popular Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome in the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby. Derby winners always generate excitement and this year is no exception. The late addition of the ultra-fast Bayern, from the barn of Bob Baffert, adds some spice to an already much anticipated event.
While all eyes will be on California Chrome, this is not a one horse affair and the 1 1/8th miles over the Parx surface should give us a good idea of where the Derby and Preakness winner is at right now. It will surely answer the question: Does chrome rust?
California Chrome’s spring campaign through the three year old classics is well chronicled. It was a long hard campaign that left him looking somewhat spent from his efforts, albeit deservedly so. All reports are the time off did him well, he has put on weight, his trainer is happy with his workouts and training so we should see a near top effort on Saturday. Naturally, with the Breeders’ Cup Classic the ultimate goal, he won’t be fully cranked but there is no way they are sending him out a short horse.
In watching three year olds develop, it is no great secret that some develop earlier than others, which often gives the impression they are better, faster or both. When the slowly developing ones catch up later in the year things have a tendency to even out, except in the case of truly superior horses. California Chrome’s next two starts should tell us where he fits in that equation. It appeared to me the Derby and Preakness winner was, at the least, close to gutted following the Belmont Stakes, which proved to be a very difficult run for him.
While there is little doubt California Chrome was the best three year old standing back in the spring, whether he is today is an entirely different question. The modern day racehorse who enjoys all the benefits of current and more liberal pre, race day, and post day medications does not always come back the same horse following a gutting performance. One needs to only look back at the brilliant Rachel Alexandra who went to the well one too many times in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. If you saw that race you saw a filly leave it all on the track and there was just nothing left afterwards. This is why campaigning is so crucial and I applaud people like Charles LoPresti (Wise Dan) and John Sheriffs (Zenyatta) who win championships while still doing what is best for their horses. Rachel Alexandra was never the same following the Woodward and couldn’t even make the big showdown that wasn’t at Oaklawn Park. It happens a lot. They just have so many of those types of efforts in them nowadays. Sure, it wasn’t always that way, which is one of the reasons I say the game changes and you have to evolve and change with it. These days, War Horse, for the most part, is just a movie title.
Though it sounds strange to say, California Chrome has a lot to prove on Saturday. He has to prove he truly was better and not just that he developed sooner than the three year olds he faced early in the year – and he has to prove he is not a spent horse. He will be asked to do this over a Parx strip he is unfamiliar with and from the dreaded rail post position. While the rail draw is not nearly the issue it is made out to be, in this race the track might be. Parx is one of those tracks that plays funny. Some horses like it and some don’t, which can be true of any surface but some have more of a curve to them. Parx is one of them. The rail is often not the place to be there but Victor Espinoza should have, or be able to make for himself, plenty of opportunities to get off of it should that be the case Saturday. Contrary to popular belief, Parx is not always a deep heavy surface. It can be very fast at times.
As for the competition California Chrome will be asked to dispose of, it is moderate with the possible exception of Bayern. The Haskell winner, on his best day and under the right conditions, is capable of monster efforts. If Bayern is allowed to cruise on the lead by himself and the track is playing speed favoring then he becomes very dangerous. He is not as one dimensional as people think and if you watch his Derby Trial back in April you’ll see what I mean. Nonetheless, it appears he will be dogged by California Chrome all the way, giving him a difficult task. What that means to the Derby and Preakness winner will be seen in that last eighth of a mile.
While it will be no surprise if California Chrome wins, I think it’s just as likely he doesn’t. Protonico and Noble Moon both look like they are sitting on improved efforts but that improvement will have to be considerable to land either in the winner’s circle. Improving horses are always dangerous, especially this time of year with three year olds. Tapiture looks like he is a cut below the better ones in here if they run their races but is not without a chance. CJ’s Awesome and Classic Giacnroll would both be surprises.
From a wagering perspective, I will take a stab with Candy Boy. I had Candy Boy rated a tad higher than most did heading into the spring classics. While he never quite panned out on that level he did have some legit excuses and has a few positive angles Saturday. He’ll be able to sit off the pace and make a late run which may be key if the top ones hook up early, which is certainly possible. Joel Rosario is the strongest finisher since Laffit Pincay Jr. and that can only help as Candy Boy tries to rally late to a victory. I don’t think Candy Boy has found a track he truly loves yet and maybe it will be the obscure Parx. He has the seasoning and may be catching the others at the right time.
Looking ahead, I would not be at all dismayed if California Chrome runs a giant race and wins big. This will set him up for favoritism or, at least, co-favoritism for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. While anyone who knows me, follows me, or reads this column knows that I don’t handicap races weeks out before they are drawn, that is a race I do not think has California Chrome’s name on it.
Shared Belief vaulted himself to the top of the three year old heap with a decisive victory against older horses in the Pacific Classic, under less than optimal conditions. Although the race was on a synthetic track he has already shown he can handle dirt by winning at Los Alamitos. The victory over older gives him an edge at this point but stringing victories together has never been a problem for this expertly managed undefeated racehorse. Stringing races together has been another story altogether but if he handles the Awesome Again and comes out of it good, he should be one awfully dangerous three year old in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Just about everyone has dismissed Tonalist from consideration as one of the top three year olds. I wouldn’t be so fast. Remember when Tonalist won the Belmont, he was kind of behind the eight ball, so to speak. He was not able to make the Kentucky Derby and was at an experience disadvantage in the Belmont. He was lightly raced and still learning and green. He had every right to level off and regress somewhat at Saratoga, which he did while still running honest – and that’s despite being taken out of his game in the Travers. I expect a strong rebound in the Jockey Club Gold Cup over the Belmont track that we know he favors.
The Cotillion Stakes is a nice undercard lead in to the Pennsylvania Derby. Untapable returns from a loss to Bayern and colts in the Haskell, against a nice group of fillies. She dominated the three year old fillies early in the year and we will see if any closed the gap on her just yet.
Congratulations to all the Past the Wire readers that stuck with Mosler. We might’ve waited for a long time but were rewarded with a nice $12.60 mutual payout last week at Belmont. Mosler went right to the top against a more experienced field and cruised to a nice confidence building victory. It’s always nice when you can spot them early.
This week the high five goes to Florent Geroux. Florent has taken his riding to a new level this year. He is riding for some strong outfits, a credit to his agent Doug Bredar, as well. You know a rider is hitting that next level when they start showing up at tracks other than their home track on big days. Florent, who rides regularly at Arlington Park, ventured to Kentucky Downs last weekend and took both features, the $600,000 Kentucky Turf Cup and the $200,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf. On Sunday he ventured to Woodbine to try for another stake aboard The Pizza Man, who just could not deliver this time.
For the second week in a row, the low five goes away from horse racing. Let’s look at this as a positive. If there was a low five to give in the Sport of Kings, I surely would have. If you make $7.6-million a year there are better ways to prove a point than a twenty cent tip. That just screams zero class. LeSean McCoy, you take it down this week. Adrian Peterson, you’re below the low five.
Horse to Watch:
Monopolist returned from a layoff all grown up and drew off at Kentucky Downs with a really nice stride. Looks like a nice horse for Mike Maker.
Jonathan Stettin is a professional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin.