Background: If speed succeeds, this colt has had it from the beginning of the Derby prep season to near the end when the distances got a bit closer to 10 furlongs. The prowess of Maker-Napravnik-Ramsey seem to have an effect akin to the stars aligning, and so they have with Vicar’s In Trouble, who has been running to the nines in the southern state preps all year. The Ramseys have been hankering for a solid shot at the Derby, and seem to have found progress with Vicar.
Prep Schedule: Finishing an even 3rd in his October debut race at Keeneland, Vicar won easily enough switching to dirt at his future stomping grounds at Fair Grounds, romping home wire-to-wire to win by 13 lengths going 6 furlongs just 2 months later. Sprinter? One turn only? Vicar answered those two questions with a definitive no next out in his stakes debut and first start as a three-year-old, wiring the 1 mile and 70 yard Lecomte (III) by nearly 7 lengths. His streak took pause next out in the Southwest Stakes (II) after he drew a wide post in a large and messy field, but still managed to work his way up to 3rd, losing by 5 1/2 lengths. Rebounding and running further, Vicar dismissed doubters in the Louisiana Derby (II), going wire-to-wire again to hold off Southwest winner Intense Holiday by 3 1/2 lengths after having an uncontested lead most of the way.
Pedigree: Part of the second crop to race by Into Mischief, who spawned two Derby starters and a Breeders’ Cup winner with his first, Vicar’s In Trouble benefits from his sire’s rich and speedy family featuring Leslie’s Lady, the dam of Into Mischief and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (I)/Eclipse winner Beholder. Into Mischief’s sire Harlan’s Holiday had been a success at stud with many top runners throughout the juvenile and spring prep stages. Dam Vibrant is an Ontario-bred by Vicar, who made a career out of sprinting but did win the Florida Derby (I). Damsire Tanks Prospect was precocious but had enough stamina in him to win the Arkansas Derby (I) and the Preakness (I).
Estimated TrueNicks Rating: A++ Variant: 131.08
Dosage Index: 5.00
Running Style: Pacesetter
Pros: Aside from a bad trip/very wide post in the crowded Southwest, Vicar has done little wrong in the prep races and has cleared every hurdle in front of him at this point, and his figures have been consistently good every race. Rosie Napravnik is a regular force in the saddle and should be able to give this colt more than a good shot.
Cons: Into Mischief’s best progeny, Goldencents and Vyjack, have both appeared to be distance limited beyond 8-9 furlongs although you can’t rightly shake them both off looking at last year’s muddy mess of the Kentucky Derby. Vicar’s pedigree isn’t there when it comes to staying the distance.
Final Word: A classic example of a horse who was more than good enough to win up to 9 furlongs, but will likely fail the test when asked to go one more. He’ll likely go for the front early, but he unfortunately won’t be alone in trying to grab the lead right away which decreases his chances of doing well— let alone winning— even more.
Bird Maker, a daughter of Empire Maker and out of a half to Birdstone, finishes 5th in the Gazelle Stakes (II).
Background: A seemingly unlikely Derby favorite in a year full of blue bloods and promising standouts, the California-bred chromey colt harks from the barn of Art Sherman, who is perhaps just as unlikely to train a winner of the Derby despite having been the assistant trainer of the unforgettable 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, who also won the Santa Anita Derby on his way to acing the roses. Bearing blinkers, sheer talent, and a fantastic backside story, California Chrome looms large as the horse to beat this year.
Prep Schedule: An early bird to the races, Chrome started his two-year-old career at Hollywood Park in late April, racing wide to register 2nd in a nondescript maiden race on the all-weather. He would win next time out, lying closer to the pace to run clear by nearly 3 lengths on poly. He lost his stakes debut in the William Procter Memorial next out scarcely two months later by getting into an early duel and fading, but won his next try in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar, edging clear to win the same way he snatched his maiden. Upgrading to G1 status, California Chrome ran too late into tight quarters in the Del Mar Futurity (I), losing by just 2 lengths in a scrambled ending. Next out was his dirt debut at Santa Anita and his final loss, getting off slow at the start but still within 3 lengths of the win. From there, and with the addition of Victor Espinoza, it’s all winner’s circle photos: a win in the 7-furlong King Glorious in December by 6 coming from off the pace, the California Cup Derby by 5 in a stalking trip, the San Felipe (II) by 7 lengths going wire-to-wire, and the Santa Anita Derby (I) wire-to-wire by an unurged 5 lengths.
Pedigree: Certainly not what you would expect with his credentials, California Chrome comes from a modest family tree with Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer, and the mare Numbered Account make two appearances in the first five generations. Sire Lucky Pulpit begat another good Derby colt similar in appearance with Rousing Sermon, but has largely been quiet on the national scene, as a son of sire maker Pulpit and out of the Cozzene mare Lucky Soph. Chrome’s dam Love the Chase is a daughter of Maryland stallion Not For Love, a son of Mr. Prospector and Dance Number, a G1 winning daughter of Eclipse winning 2-year-old Numbered Account, who is featured again on Love the Chase’s dam side with Polish Numbers (by Danzig). And yes, Swaps is mentioned in Chrome’s pedigree through Numbered Account!
Estimated TrueNicks Rating: A Variant 3.98
Dosage Index: 3.40
Running Style: Generally off-the-pace or stalking
Pros: Cool and professional mentally, California Chrome is more experienced than much of what he’ll be facing and has some of the best numbers and visually impressive past performances that have prepared him for the Derby. His connections appear very confident in his chances to parlay his win streak at least one more. A stalking sort of runner, he’s very advantaged should he draw and break well.
Cons: The Santa Anita Derby has plagued many as a prep race in recent years with the exception of I’ll Have Another’s storied success, the last being Sunday Silence in 1989, and before Sunday was Affirmed back in the 1970s. Many Californian racehorses— never mind a California-BRED racehorse— struggle in eastern soil.
Final Word: So much about California Chrome draws my attention along with the interest of many others. His jockey piloted my first Derby pick (and winner) to the winner’s circle in 2002 with War Emblem, Art Sherman is perfectly old school, and Chrome himself is a ground-eating athlete with homegrown appeal. Who dares to hate the Chrome? He’ll be the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May, and while far from invincible, he’s got the right mental mindset and one of the best strides I’ve seen in this year’s field going forward.
Red Down South at Old Friends Cabin Creek
Background: Bloodstock agent Larry Zap has only acquired two horses in his career for more than $100,000: Whitney (I) winner Bullsbay for $108k, and Blue Grass (I) winner Dance With Fate for $130k. It seems to have paid off. Seen by many as a grass/poly type horse, Dance With Fate was given the go-ahead to give the Derby a shot following the Blue Grass by trainer Peter Eurton, who has yet to enter the Run for the Roses.
Prep Schedule: Misfiring in his debut race at Hollywood Park, DWF returned to nail his target a month later at Del Mar in August of his two-year-old year, running clear of the field by 1 1/2 lengths going 6 1/2 furlongs on the poly. Bumped and unable to go straight to the front again in the Del Mar Futurity (I), he ran a winning race while stretching out to 7 furlongs, but wound up missing by a head to rival Tamarando. Turning to dirt for the first time the next month in the 1 1/16-mile Frontrunner (I), DWF had a bad brush with fate again, stalking the pace as the favorite but was unable to hold off eventual winner Bond Holder, who swept in to win by nearly 3 lengths. One of the many to spin his wheels in the Breeders’ Cup, DWF made a flurried attempt to run 8th before calling it quits for the year, and won a grass allowance in his first race as a three-year-old going a mile at Santa Anita in one of his most impressive starts to date. Rolling in top form, he ran a winning race next out in the El Camino Real Derby (III) on Golden Gate’s synthetic course, but was unable to hold off Tamarando who defeated him by a half length. Shipping and surging in form, DWF showed his best at Keeneland in the Blue Grass (I), making an impressive charge in the straight from the back to win by nearly 2 lengths over G3 winner Medal Count.
Pedigree: Part of sprinter-mile Two Step Salsa’s first crop, Dance With Fate is speed on top with distance on the bottom with plenty of dirt influences despite his success on turf and poly. Two Step Salsa didn’t do all that much on the track, but did manage to win the Godolphin Mile and over $1 million in earnings while mainly racing from 7-8 furlongs. A son of Petitionville, Two Step is out of the unraced Seattle Slew mare Two To Waltz to give him a good foundation. Dance With Fate is out of the Saint Ballado mare Flirting With Fate, whose dam Biogio’s Baby features dual traces to Northern Dancer. Danzig and Halo are key additions, providing this Derby puzzle with speed and distance.
Estimated TrueNicks Rating: D Variant 0.19
Dosage Index: 1.91
Running Style: Adaptable
Pros: Aiming to be the first Florida-bred since Affirmed to win the Kentucky Derby, Dance With Fate has shown great dimension in his turf and poly wins as a horse who was a promising juvenile-turned-even better three-year-old.
Cons: Since poly came into force, how many of its dominators have gone on to do well on dirt and win such a prestigious race? The stakes are high for Dance With Fate, with the last Blue Grass winner to win the Derby being Strike the Gold in 1991 when it was still a dirt race, with polytrack winners largely disappointing in the big race. Dance With Fate will also have do more shipping than most, as he shipped out for the Blue Grass and has shipped back to Santa Anita to train.
Final Word: The big question is whether or not Dance With Fate was disadvantaged in preparing exclusively on turf and polytrack for the Kentucky Derby as well as the quality of company he was able to defeat in his races. Tamarando, his arch rival and meter stick for comparison, was seemingly a poly-only horse and the bulk of the Blue Grass field was composed of horses trying to get into the Derby field despite having little to no dirt ability. However, while some will try to argue it, Dance With Fate DOES have dirt ability and he does belong in the Derby. I currently peg him in my top 5 as of right now.
Wicked Strong walks back a Wood Memorial (I) winner
Background: A good young horse who managed to become the latest of Bob Baffert’s to ship well into the Midwest ranks, Hoppertunity improved in the ability and luck department to score a surging win in the Rebel Stakes (II) at Oaklawn, edging graded winners Tapiture and Strong Mandate to establish himself as one of the top Derby prep horses in the region. Trainer Bob Baffert and co-owner Mike Pegram are no strangers to Triple Crown success having campaigned Real Quiet together to a near-Triple Crown.
Prep Schedule: Hoppertunity was regarded as a quality runner when making his 7-furlong debut in January at Santa Anita Park; despite running 5th to his ultra talented stablemate Bayern, the colt made up ground late going wide into the stretch. Sent off at 6-1 his next try, Hoppertunity broke his maiden going away at a mile with a much better trip, winning by 3 lengths. Jumping into stakes competition, Hoppertunity shipped to the Risen Star (II) at Fair Grounds 3 weeks later while stretching out a half furlong, but missed the board by a length while getting crowded in heavy traffic on the turn. Turning back 3 weeks later to the Rebel (II) and getting Mike Smith to ride him at Oaklawn, Hop found his stride late, making up 6 lengths in the stretch to win by a half length. Back in California 3 weeks later, he made a valiant bid in the Santa Anita Derby (I) in his first try at 9 furlongs, but was second best to California Chrome, defeated by about 5 while beating the rest of the field by at least 3 lengths.
Pedigree: Hoppertunity combines a lot of great genetics into one solid yet overlooked family tree. Sire Any Given Saturday has not done much a stallion, with the bulk of his progeny doing best on the grass with Hoppertunity being his best U.S. runner to date. Any Given Saturday, a son of classic horse producer Distorted Humor and out of the A.P. Indy mare Weekend in Indy, ran well at 9-10 furlongs with his major wins being the 9-furlong Haskell (I) and Brooklyn Handicap (II) while finishing 8th in the Derby. The Danzig influence is reaffirmed again in his dam side with the Unaccounted For daughter, Refugee, who also produced the very talented G1 winner Executiveprivilege, with Danzig siring her dam Polish Maid, who is out of the super filly Davona Dale.
Estimated TrueNicks Rating: A++ Variant: 11.11
Dosage Index: 2.64
Running Style: Off-the-pace
Pros: Hoppertunity is backed by serious connection power, as trainer Bob Baffert has won 10 Triple Crown races including 3 Kentucky Derby wins, one of which was with the owners’ Real Quiet. Jockey Mike Smith has been on fire this spring snapping up graded stakes despite the odds, and he himself has a stellar record with the Triple Crown races having won each of them once and won the Belmont last year with Palace Malice. Hoppertunity comes from a strong distance family, and his backers proclaim that this horse will thrive with even more ground as a late-improving horse.
Cons: Hoppertunity faces a steep challenge from the Apollo curse as a horse who has never run as a two-year-old, making his first start on January 4 of this year. He is the only horse in the field countering this issue.
Final Word: Not really urged in the Santa Anita Derby, Hoppertunity seemed to store something in the tank off his last start, which he didn’t need to win off that Rebel (II) victory. Despite having no experience as a two-year-old, Hoppertunity hasn’t shown his greenhorn side to anyone and comes from a strong racing family who has done little but excel given the opportunity (pardon the pun) for more ground, and has been able to separate from the bunch late in the game. A strong underdog play, I am a complete believer that Hoppertunity’s best will shine through at the 10-furlong stage— however good that “best” may be, is still unknown.
I got out of posting news on here a long time ago (really, what is the point?), but it’s always a cherished kind of day when Zenyatta foals her next youngster. I don’t think I could love any of her offspring more than her bombin’ Tapit colt, but her new daughter by War Front is going to be boss. Gorgeous girl from the early photos with a dynamite turf pedigree.
Happy Easter everyone!