Although some horsemen might fixate on the Kentucky Derby, Art Sherman takes a more serene approach to the sport, assuming that obsessive ambition is best left to salmon.
The veteran California horseman hasn't attended a Kentucky Derby in 58 years. He hasn't had a reason to. In 1955, as an exercise rider for future Hall of Fame trainer Mesh Tenney and owner Rex Ellsworth, Sherman first traveled to Kentucky with Swaps. Leading throughout, the great Cal-bred defeated Nashua to win the 81st Kentucky Derby. The next year, Sherman returned with another speedy Cal-bred that had won the Santa Anita Derby, Terrang. He led for three-quarters of a mile before faltering and finishing 12th at Churchill Downs.
So six decades later, having long ago graduated from exercising horses in the mornings to riding races in the afternoons and then to training stakes winners, Sherman finally has a good reason to go back to Kentucky and to the Derby: California Chrome. With his victory Saturday at Santa Anita, California Chrome jumps to the top of ESPN.com's Power Rankings and becomes the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
He's not backing into the role; rather, he has rushed forward and seized it. Nobody has looked better; nobody stronger. Yes, the Santa Anita surface was kind to speed Saturday -- every winner but one on the main track either led early or was arguing about the early lead -- but California Chrome didn't win the Santa Anita Derby with his speed, or not with just that. He finished fastest of all; he was explosive and dynamic. He ran his fourth quarter-mile as fast as his second. And after he tucked the victory away, he "waltzed home," as the great Trevor Denman put it. And then, in the final yards, California Chrome pricked his ears, as though receptive to the flattery.
Sherman called the handsome colt a "rock star" because of the attention that now seems to follow him everywhere. It'll follow him all the way to Kentucky and greet him like an expectant throng every morning when he goes to the track. The attention will walk with him step by step to the Churchill Downs paddock on the afternoon of May 3, follow him with a melody onto the track and then like a reverberating echo through the post parade and into the starting gate, waiting there for the burst and the frenetic rush that begin the most turbulent moment in sports. The attention will shadow him relentlessly because he's the Kentucky Derby favorite and as such the receptacle of so many hopes and expectations. A rock star tends to perform his best when he's the object of everyone's attention.
1. California Chrome
California Chrome has earned the role of Kentucky Derby favorite with four consecutive stakes victories. The accumulative margin of his dominance is more than 24 lengths. And his most recent victory, the Santa Anita Derby, was his best yet. He stalked the pace, moved to the leader on the backstretch and then with a fourth quarter-mile in 24.22 seconds, he put the race away, going clear by five lengths in mid-stretch and cruising home, in hand and pricking his ears at the wire. With his winning time of 1:47.52 for the 1⅛ miles, he gave the fastest Santa Anita Derby performance since Indian Charlie's (1:47) in 1997 and the fifth fastest ever. California Chrome has been not only the most impressive 3-year-old this year but also the most consistent.
2. Wicked Strong
Third in last year's Remsen Stakes, Wicked Strong began the season accompanied by high expectations, but in two races at Gulfstream Park he showed little. He had some trouble, but most of all, he just didn't like Florida, and the speed-favoring surface didn't like him. But he soared to a new level of performance with his win in the Wood Memorial, making up four lengths in the final three-eighths of a mile and then drawing clear to win by more than three lengths. And now he'll go to Kentucky as one of the horses who's within reach of the sort of effort that's generally necessary to win the roses.
Without racing, he moved up in the Power Rankings this week, mostly because of Candy Boy's descent, of course, but it's worth noting that Constitution easily defeated Wicked Strong in Florida. Granted, that wasn't the Wicked Strong who won Saturday, but the Wood emphasized just how speed-biased Gulfstream was this year. And when Constitution won the Florida Derby, he ran down a capable horse, Wildcat Red, who loves Gulfstream Park and who had stolen away with a comfortable lead in the slowest opening half-mile of the day. A long-striding son of Tapit, Constitution is another who's within reach of the sort of performance that might win the Kentucky Derby. But can he overcome his inexperience? It has been 132 years since a horse that hadn't raced as a juvenile won the Kentucky Derby.
After his breakout effort to win the Rebel Stakes, Hoppertunity took a slight step backwards in the Santa Anita Derby. Still, he ran well at Santa Anita, rallying into a modest pace and then, after the finish, galloping out beyond the winner. Many horses, though, have gone to Kentucky after a loss only to rediscover their winning form on Derby Day, horses such as Super Saver, for example, and Street Sense and Giacomo. And remember, Hoppertunity is a late foal whose actual birthday won't be until May 7, so he could still take a major step forward.
After a bullet five-eighths (1:00.80) of a mile last week, Tapiture worked a slow half-mile (50.80 seconds) Monday at Oaklawn Park in preparation for the Arkansas Derby, where he'll be one of the favorites. That has been his pattern. Although he finished second in the Rebel, he demonstrated admirable determination by overcoming a bad trip that included considerable bumping in the stretch. He could be another who'll be within reach of a winning effort when he goes to Kentucky. A late foal, he actually will turn 3 on May 3, Derby Day.
The King of Queens ran well to be second in the Wood, beating Social Inclusion by a nose. But his final furlong wasn't encouraging. He needed more than 13 seconds to run that last eighth of a mile, suggesting that he might not want to go much farther. Still, he fought gamely, and he has good tactical speed. The New York-bred never has run a poor race, or anything close to it. But, and this is vitally important, he hasn't taken a significant step forward; basically, he hasn't improved at all this year. And winning the Derby is all about improvement and development. For these 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown path, an effort that can succeed in February doesn't quite get it done in April and then fails dismally in May.
7. Intense Holiday
When he won the Risen Star Stakes and galloped out so strongly after the finish, he looked like a horse that would love longer distances and relish the Derby's 1¼ miles. But while finishing second in the recent Louisiana Derby, Intense Holiday took a step backward. Perhaps he was too close to the early pace -- less than two lengths back after the opening half-mile, compared to six back after a much slower opening half in the Risen Star -- or maybe the performance was the result of a mental error -- he ducked in after turning into the stretch and nearly hit the inner rail. If he recovers his best form and steps forward, he could threaten in Kentucky.
8T. Candy Boy
Although disappointing in the Santa Anita Derby, he still has 30 qualifying points, which might be enough, and he's still on the road to Kentucky, according to his trainer, John Sadler. A larger question might be whether Candy Boy can be a contender in Kentucky. The former leader in the Power Rankings, he finished nine lengths behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby and had no obvious excuse. He seemed to be racing easily on the backstretch; given the pace, he was basically, to that point, duplicating his Robert Lewis effort. But when the running commenced, he surrendered. He's better than that. And he'll have to be much better if he's to threaten at Churchill Downs.
8T. Vicar's In Trouble
Vicar's In Trouble isn't the most physically gifted or talented horse on this list, but the Louisiana-bred is among the most admirable. The qualities that frequently get him into the winner's circle include imperceptible virtues such as courage and intelligence. But can courage and intelligence overcome a talent or stamina deficit and enable him to threaten in Kentucky? When he won the Louisiana Derby, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 38.63 seconds, compared to California Chrome's 36.71 in the Santa Anita Derby and Wicked Strong's 37.35 over a dull Aqueduct surface and Constitution's 36.76 in the Florida Derby. In other words, Vicar's In Trouble could be in trouble indeed at 1¼ miles.
Bayern worked seven-eighths of a mile out of the gate Sunday at Santa Anita in company with stablemate Drill, a 5-year-old stakes winner who has earned more than a half-million dollars in his career. The move was designed to "sharpen" Bayern for Saturday's Arkansas Derby, and it apparently did just that. With Gary Stevens riding, Bayern completed the distance, starting from the three-quarter pole and continuing past the wire, in 1:23.80. Drill worked in 1:24.20. Scratched from the San Felipe because of a bruised foot, Bayern has raced only twice, but with his 15-length romp in February, he hinted that he could be among the most talented horses of his generation.
Also receiving votes: Cairo Prince (33), Wildcat Red (32), Chitu (16), Strong Mandate (16), Ride On Curlin (13), Social Inclusion (8), Bobby's Kitten (6), We Miss Artie (6), Conquest Titan (5), General A Rod (5), Commissioner (3), Albano (2), Toast of New York (2), Uncle Sigh (2), Commanding Curve (1).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.