If Not California Chrome, Who?

By Tom Jicha
16 May ’14

(Note -This column by Tom Jicha was originally published in Horse Race Insider, an on-line newsletter on the national racing scene edited by veteran racing writer John Pricci.)

Capsule: In my view, California Chrome faces a lackluster group of challengers in the Preakness. Only two horses who chased him home in the Derby, Ride on Curlin and General a Rod, are coming back for more, one of the smallest numbers in years. What’s more, there are holes in the resumes of the new shooters. But there is a creative way to make a good score if he wins.

Friday, May  15 – “Looking for a danger, can’t find one” is a pet Trevor Denman phrase for a race with a runaway winner. This also sums up how I feel about Saturday’s Preakness.

Like most horse players, I’m always looking to beat the favorite, especially in a race with the ego satisfaction of the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Maybe I’ll have an inspiration as post-time draws closer. But a few days out, I can’t find a horse among those scheduled to run who can upset Derby champion California Chrome.


I would have loved to see Oaks winner Untapable take a shot but that isn’t going to happen.


I wonder if Steve Asmussen is gun shy about the attention running his filly against colts would bring. This wasn’t a factor when he sent out Rachel Alexandra to beat Mine That Bird in 2009 but that was then and this is now. The uproar if anything happened to Untapable would be deafening, even though fillies routinely run against – and beat – the boys everywhere else in the world.


Actually, there will be a filly running against the males. Ria Antonia, one of the most mismanaged horse in years, is being thrown into the fray. Her problem is not that she is a filly. It’s that she’s a filly who has given no indication that she is good enough to have an impact on a race like the Preakness. She has gotten to the wire first only once in eight career starts, a maiden sprint at Woodbine last July. She got kissed into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner’s circle when an exhausted She’s a Tiger bore out late.


Ria Antonia’s owners have been hell bent on challenging males since the Breeders’ Cup. Their first target this year was the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. Her then-trainer Jeremiah Englehart chose a more prudent spot; the Rachel Alexandra against her own sex, and she finished fourth.


That was it for Englehart. Next stop was the California barn of Bob Baffert, who got her to finish second in the Santa Anita Oaks. But after Ria Antonia ran sixth in the Kentucky Oaks, she was moved from Baffert to Tom Amoss, who agreed to enter her in the Preakness.


To make matters worse, Ria Antonia, as the only girl against the boys, will be seriously over-bet by drunks trying to score points with their girlfriends and women supporting one of their own.


California Chrome even has history on his side. Only three horses who did not run in the Derby have won the Preakness in the past 30 years: Rachel Alexandra, Bernardini and Red Bullet. Taking nothing away from Bernardini, who went on to establish himself as a great horse, his victory was tarnished when Barbaro broke down shortly after the start.


Is there anyone who mistakes Ride on Curlin and General a Rod for Rachel Alexandra, Bernardini or Red Bullet? Between them, these Derby also-rans have accounted for one stakes this year, General a Rod’s win in the one-turn mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day.


I’ve been saying all winter and spring that General a Rod is a game animal but I could not see him getting a mile and a quarter. I feel the same way about a mile and three-sixteenths.


Ride On Curlin, who was given a highly questionable ride by Calvin Borel in the Derby, almost always gives you a late run. He could pick up some minor pieces in the Preakness but he’s zero-for-seven in stakes races.


I’d be tempted to take a shot with Bayern or Social Inclusion if one or the other wasn’t in the race. But since they each seem to have one-dimensional front-running styles, they could race each other into the ground, a perfect set-up for the stalking California Chrome.


There seems to be no doubt that Social Inclusion, who appears to have the sharpest early lick, is going to the lead after his final work on Monday, a half-mile in a bullet 47 seconds. Baffert indicated he’s going to a new strategy for Bayern, whose final work of 1:02 3/5 was atypically slow for Bullet Bob.


Baffert is taking off the blinkers, tipping his hand that he doesn’t want Bayern dueling on a hot pace. Still, there is only so much you can do to harness a horse’s natural tendencies.


If Bayern can be successfully rated he could be double tough. He deserved to be taken down in the Derby Trial but, if you watch the race and the gallop-out, you will see that Embellishing Bob and Myositis Dan were not going to pass him.


Even if Bayern doesn’t go all out early, Social Inclusion should have company on the front end. Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact, Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend and Pablo Del Monte, who led the Blue Grass into the stretch, as well as General a Rod, are likely to be prominent early, although this could be suicidal for the lesser lights.


Every Preakness has at least one local shooter. This year, it’s Kid Cruz although he’s not exactly a native son, being based in New York. However, he did ship south to the Free State to win the Federico Tesio and Private Terms.


However, a Maryland spring-stakes winner who didn’t start in the Derby hasn’t upset Pimlico’s signature race since Deputed Testimony in 1983. But they do occasionally hit the board at generous odds and Kid Cruz’s late-running style could be the right way to go if the early fractions are as hot as they figure to be.


I’m looking for the danger to California Chrome but I can’t find it. He’s on top of my tickets with Bayern, Ride on Curlin and Kid Cruz in supporting positions.


The price on the Derby champ, even in exactas, is likely to be so short that there might be a better way to try to make a buck. Buy as many Belmont Stakes reserved seats before Saturday as your budget allows. If he wins, they will be like gold, shooting up in value because a Triple Crown will be on the line. If he doesn’t win, you weren’t going to collect anyway but the Belmont tickets, unlike losing pari-mutuel tickets, will still have some value.









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