He didn't politely knock; he blew the door off its hinges to enter the ESPN.com Power Rankings for the Kentucky Derby. After Saturday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, where he won emphatically in the best performance of the season by a 3-year-old, California Chrome debuts at No. 5 in the Power Rankings' poll.
Wildcat Red, the Fountain of Youth winner, returns to the Top 10 at No. 9 as Bayern, who was a late scratch from the San Felipe, and Top Billing, who's off the Triple Crown trail because of an injury, drop out. But California Chrome was the headliner, winning by more than seven lengths while feeling only a tap on the shoulder from jockey Victor Espinoza's whip.
Afterward, the California-bred's veteran trainer, Art Sherman, explained that with the 50 qualifying points California Chrome earned for the Kentucky Derby, the pressure's off. In other words, California Chrome is in, his place in the Derby starting gate reserved. And so there's no pressure to come back with him April 5 in the Santa Anita Derby. Basically, Sherman said he has yet to decide whether he'll run the San Felipe winner in the Santa Anita Derby or train him up to the Kentucky Derby.
If Sherman chooses the Kentucky Derby for California Chrome's next start, then the flashy chestnut would go to Churchill Downs with experience in only two races around two turns, one at a mile and the other at 1 1/16 miles. And it has been 54 years since a horse that never had raced beyond 1 1/16 miles, specifically Middleground, won the Kentucky Derby.
And while his recent effort was a door-smashing breakout performance, some skepticism will nevertheless accompany California Chrome into his next outing, no matter where that might be. Yes, he has looked like a superstar recently, but can he duplicate his sensational San Felipe effort, or was that just an aberration, a singular moment when everything came symphonically together for him -- he outbroke the field, got to the rail and into his high-cruising rhythm and never felt a serious challenge? And, most important, can he be as effective at a longer distance? His sire, Lucky Pulpit, never won beyond 5 ½ furlongs, and California Chrome's dam, Love That Chase, never won beyond 6. In fact, she won only once, and that was at the humblest level of competition, a maiden claiming affair.
Yes, questions remain, but from here California Chrome looks like he's already in the vanguard to Kentucky. That group will also include one or probably two candidates from this weekend's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, where Tapiture and Strong Mandate, the first two finishers in the Southwest Stakes, are set to meet again.
"I hope he has a better draw and trip than he's been getting so I can see what we have," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas about Strong Mandate. "I'm really looking forward to Saturday."
In the Southwest, Strong Mandate broke poorly from his outside post position, got stopped and raced wide throughout. After working to overcome so much, he became very tired in the stretch, Lukas said. Still, Strong Mandate finished second, and since then, his trainer said, he has trained well.
And so has Tapiture, according to his trainer, Steve Asmussen. A late foal, he seems to take a step forward with each trip around the oval. The Southwest was his second consecutive stakes victory. Kobe's Back, the winner of the San Vicente Stakes, is expected to join them at Oaklawn for the Rebel.
1. Cairo Prince
On Saturday, at Palm Meadows in Florida, Cairo Prince worked a half-mile in 49.45 seconds. It was an easy move following the head-turning bullet last week, when he worked five-eighths of a mile in company with the older stakes winner Long River in 59.95 seconds. Cairo Prince hasn't raced since winning the Holy Bull Stakes by nearly six lengths. But he has been training steadily, and everything seems to be going smoothly for him. He's aimed, of course, at the Florida Derby.
2. Candy Boy
Candy Boy worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.20 Thursday in preparation for the Santa Anita Derby. His victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes suggested that on the road to Kentucky he could be the leader out of the West. But suddenly, after California Chrome's sparkling San Felipe performance, there are two leaders in the West.
3. Honor Code
Honor Code worked a half-mile Sunday in 47.90 seconds in preparation for his seasonal debut Wednesday at Gulfstream Park. Having missed three weeks of training, he's behind schedule. And so Wednesday's performance will be very important in letting his trainer, Shug McGaughey, decide which path to follow. After Wednesday, he could come back in the Florida Derby or the Wood Memorial. But wherever he runs, he'll need to pick up some qualifying points if he's to advance to Kentucky.
He had an easy maintenance workout Monday at Oaklawn Park, a half-mile in 50.20 seconds, in preparation for Saturday's Rebel Stakes. Tapiture's actual birthday is May 3, which also happens to be Kentucky Derby Day. That means he's a couple of months behind most of these in terms of development, but it also means he might have more room for improvement in the next two months.
5. California Chrome
He has won his past three races by a total of 19 lengths, and his San Felipe performance was outstanding. He ran the opening half-mile in 45.55 and the opening three-quarters in 1:09.45, splits that were comparable to Game On Dude's in the Big 'Cap the same day. And like Game On Dude, California Chrome continued to roll even after the swift fractions. The Cal-bred is a runner, no doubt about that, but how far will his speed and pedigree take him?
6. Intense Holiday
Intense Holiday worked a half-mile in 47.90 Saturday at Palm Meadows in Florida. That's a sharp move for such a stretch runner, suggesting again that he finally has grown up and figured things out. His victory in the Risen Star Stakes was, in the words of his trainer, the "breakthrough." The long stretch at Fair Grounds plays to his strength, and although he's training in Florida, Intense Holiday will return to New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby on March 29.
And so how good is the King of Queens? His victories in the Withers and the Gotham argue that this New York-bred is very good. He has considerable speed, but he's tractable; most of all, he's tenacious. He's to make his next start in the Wood Memorial.
8. Strong Mandate
Will the Rebel Stakes be the occasion for their getting back together, Strong Mandate and Lady Luck? Or at least on speaking terms. Outside post positions, bumps, slammed doors, wide trips -- Strong Mandate has seen it all in his past three races. Is he the sort who finds bad luck or makes his own, or could his luck change? He worked an easy five-eighths of a mile in preparation for the Rebel.
9. Wildcat Red
The Fountain of Youth winner returns to the Top 10 after a brief absence. And so the questions return as well. Can he carry his speed beyond 1 1/16 miles? Can he be as effective at a racetrack other than speed-biased Gulfstream Park, where he has raced exclusively? The Florida Derby could answer the first question, and the Kentucky Derby the second.
10. Shared Belief
Because of a problematic foot, the unbeaten champion juvenile of 2013 still hasn't had a published workout since Jan. 3. And so at this point, the Kentucky Derby seems highly doubtful for him. But he has resumed training at Golden Gate, and so perhaps it's possible the wildly talented gelding could join a Triple Crown in progress.
Also receiving votes: Bayern (13), Ring Weekend (11), General A Rod (10), Vicar's In Trouble (8), Tamarando (9), Albano (7), Uncle Sigh (7), Commissioner (6), Conquest Titan (6), Giovanni Boldini (6), In Trouble (6), Constitution (5), Noble Moon (5), Bond Holder (4), Midnight Hawk (4), Kobe's Back (2), Bobby's Kitten (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.