We are now within the zone, that being less than four weeks until the Kentucky Derby. Some call it the deep end of the pool, where contenders emerge and pretenders fade away. The 50 point races have been replaced by the 100 point ones and the time is now for colts and fillies to step and stamp themselves before the big day in Louisville.
Facebook can be a useful tool. There are many types of Facebook users. Some use it to track everything that they do in the course of a day. They tell that they’re stressed, happy, sad, angry, bitter and so on. Others use it post their opinions about politics, sports, social issues and the like. I have used it to post information. Yesterday, I wanted to inform my friends that the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby would be run and that they deserved attention as major prep races for the Kentucky Derby. I did get several likes and more than 10 comments. That made me feel good because I’m looking for fans; people that are interested or even more importantly, people that are thinking of becoming fans. The more the merrier is my belief. Football, basketball and baseball have enough fans; let’s get more horse racing fans.
One of the comments posted was that Social Inclusion was a mortal lock to win the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack, where an impressive crowd of nearly 13,000 were in attendance. The son of Pioneer of the Nile was anything but. He led at the top of the stretch but faded badly to third. Not only was he not a mortal lock, he may not be a lock to make it the gate for the Derby on May 3. The third place finish garnered the colt 20 points, but that might not be enough to make the 20 horse field. Last year, 14 points was good enough, but it looks like 25 or more may be needed for 2014.
The connections of Social Inclusion did not run him as a two year old and this was his first start in a stakes race. He was facing some tested colts like Samraat and Uncle Sigh as well as the winner, Wicked Strong. Sometimes, a colt needs to make a smaller stakes start before a major one, something that Samraat and the others did but not Social Inclusion. The question is quite simple: does Social Inclusion run one more time before the Derby? My hunch say no, that they will see if 20 points is enough to get him in and if it isn’t, you can bet that the Preakness will be in the cards for the colt, and that could prove dangerous for the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby. It’s obvious Social Inclusion has major talent. When I saw jockey Luis Contreras look behind him, it appeared that he had the field measured and was going to set Social Inclusion flying to the finish. But, that didn’t happen, which to me, can be attributed to lack of racing. Should he run in the Preakness, he’ll be tougher and fresher, so look out Derby winner.
As important as it is to get your horse in the Kentucky Derby, it is not the end-all, be-all. Some horses mature later as we saw with Will Take Charge in 2013, so it might be premature to jump off the Social Inclusion bandwagon. Second place finisher Samraat wasn’t going to be the favorite at Churchill Downs, but he did nothing to dismiss his credentials with a second place Wood finish. He was a threat to win the Run for the Roses before yesterday and today, he remains one.
The winner Wicked Strong was the surprise. The colt spent the winter at Gulfstream and in short, didn’t like being a snow bunny. Though he trained fairly well, he raced poorly, but came up north and stunned many with a great late surge to win the 1 1/8 Wood in 1:49.31, a good time. The times at Gulfstream are always fast and the track always favors frontrunners and is run on what I call concrete dirt; say what you want about the Big A, but the times are fair and just because the Wood winner’s times aren’t as fast as the Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby, they should not be dismissed.
There will be a clear cut favorite come Derby time and his name is California Chrome, the son of Lucky Pulpit. Chrome simply destroyed the field in the Santa Anita Derby and left no doubt that he will be a force to be reckoned with in four weeks. As impressive as he was, his attitude afterward with the way he snapped his head and galloped out would be alarming to me if I was trying to beat him in Louisville.
More fascinating than the colt is the trainer, 77 year old Art Sherman. He would be oldest trainer to win the Derby and moreover, he was the exercise rider for Swaps, who defeated Nashua to win the 1955 Kentucky Derby. That’s 1955! Sherman was an 18 year old exercise rider who helped the immortal Swaps win the Derby and now, 59 years later, Sherman is primed to be in the spotlight again. One can already see the NBC executives busy at work preparing a feature on the 1955 Derby, Sherman and California Chrome. It will create the sentiment and the delicious human interest story that NBC does and does well.
The only thing working against California Chrome is that he’s from California, and no California bred has won the Derby since Decidedly back in 1962. I’m not sure that really matters, but for bettors and stat geeks, it will have some type of impact. You can see it now; lines like “they don’t ship well,” “the California curse,” and others will be trotted out for the viewing audience and until a California bred wins the Derby, those lines I suppose are fair.
Just two major prep races remain with the Arkansas Derby and the Bluegrass Stakes, both at 1 1/8 miles set for next Saturday. Each race is on the 100-40-20-10 scale and it should be noted that the Bluegrass at Keeneland is on synthetic. There is the Lexington Stakes on Saturday, April 19 at Bluegrass that is on a 10-4-2-1 scale which could be used as a last chance gasp to get a horse in. It would be intriguing if Social Inclusion needed it get into the Derby. Would they enter him to get him in or wait until the Preakness? There is no doubt that a horse could run the Lexington, then come back two weeks later for the Derby, but guys like Woody Stephens aren’t around anymore so that’s not likely to happen.
It’s go time now. The prep races are nearly done. Next Sunday, we’ll add up the points, start interviewing the trainers and checking out all the workouts as the Kentucky Derby begins to take shape.
The greatest day on the American sports calendar is coming.