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GEORGE ROWAND ON RACING: I’m betting California Chrome to win the Kentucky Derby

Friday, May. 2 | By George Rowand
This year, for the first time, racegoers attending the Virginia Gold Cup will be able to place an actual official wager on the Kentucky Derby.

Maybe it's your first time betting on the Derby, and you will be able to march up to the betting windows, put down your $2 and – through the magic of technology – have your wager mixed with all the other millions of dollars that are being bet on the race from around the world.

Perhaps you're a bettor that likes to bet on a horse's name. Or maybe you have a lucky number that you always play. Or you could bet on a famous jockey or trainer or even the color of the racing silks.

The surprising thing is that there will be people who bet like that this year who will cash a winning ticket. But perhaps you are more analytical, and you want to have a good reason to bet on a specific horse. In this article, I’m going to offer some advice and – eventually – my picks for the race.

The most important things to remember about the Derby for the neophyte bettor are these: 1. No horse in the field has ever run the demanding mile-and-a-quarter in an actual race before. 2. No horse in the race has ever been in a field with 19 other horses before. 3. No horse in the race has ever run in front of 160,000 fans before.

Why mention these? It is to show that the race always is filled with question marks. Can a horse run that far competitively? We don't know for sure. Can a horse navigate the large field? That's where pure racing luck comes into play, and we can't speculate which horse will get a good trip and which might be blocked at absolutely the worst time. Can a horse maintain its composure and not get too nervous in front of that loud, boisterous crowd and the crowded paddock? We can only guess.

The Derby hoopla often gets to the horses as they get saddled and to the riders as they warm the horses up. The band plays “My Old Kentucky Home,” some members of the crowd start to weep and then hoop and holler, the horses trot off, the infield is a cacophony of sights and sounds, and every horse realizes that this is not just another race. Every rider knows it's not just another day at the office.

The atmosphere and the size of the field often mean that horses that are used to breaking from the gate and establishing a decent position early find themselves being gunned from the gate so that they aren't hung six-wide on the first turn, thus losing all chance in the first quarter mile. The excitement of the Derby and the early battle to gain good position often causes the early pace to be quicker than one that the speed horses find comfortable.

Simply put, they are running farther than they have ever run in a race, and they are expending more energy in the first part than they normally would. It often is a recipe for disaster for a good horse.

Yet by 7 p.m. on Saturday, one horse will have stormed down the stretch at Churchill Downs and placed his name in racing history. He will wear the blanket of roses into the winner's circle, and his connections will never live a day from that moment to the ends of their lives that they don't remember what their horse accomplished that afternoon in Louisville.

So which horse will it be?

The important thing to remember is that after mentioning the three most important concerns about the race, the contest generally is not some random event that cannot be forecast in advance. Yes, the best horse in the field might have awful luck and not hit the wire first. And maybe the early pace will be so hot that it incinerates the chances of the front runners, leaving the race for some longshot to pick up the pieces, as 50-1shot Mine That Bird did in 2009.

But in any race, one needs to start with the best horse in the field and go from there, and this year the best horse is California Chrome.

California Chrome is blessed with excellent tactical speed and a laid-back manner. It seems unlikely that the crowd will bother him, and he has enough speed to lay close to the pace, take the lead on the final turn and be clear in the stretch run to the wire.

Can he get the distance? The question mark is his pedigree. A blue blood he isn't. He's by a stallion – Lucky Pulpit – that stood for a $2,500 stud fee and out of a mare that was worth $8,000 a few years ago.

Yet the colt has done so well that the owner-breeders turned down a $6 million offer for 51 percent of him.
Looking at his pedigree, in my opinion, there is sufficient stamina a couple of generations back to bring him home first.

I have two question marks in my mind. He has never raced outside California, and sometimes the Churchill track surface can befuddle a horse and cause it to not run its race, and his trainer has not started a Derby contender before. This race often requires some Derby experience.

Can he be beaten? Of course.

A horse that could benefit from a sizzling early pace is General a Rod. (No, I don't know why they didn't capitalize the “a”). This colt has stamina to get the distance and is coming into the race well.

A longshot that might be there at the finish is Candy Boy, under jockey Gary Stevens. For this horse to win likely would require a beautiful trip, which happens often enough to make him a consideration.

Another horse that could hit the board at least is Wicked Strong, again a horse that will be closing if he runs his race. He can get a tad worked up in the gate, so that is a serious consideration. Will he lose the race before it even starts?

Naturally, I could go on (and on) about the contenders, but this year, for me at least, it's all about California Chrome. If he breaks well, settles just off the early speed, stays out of trouble, I expect him to win.

If he's rank, is wide in the first turn, is blocked on the second turn, he's finished. He should be the favorite, and that's how I’m betting. But just in case he doesn't run his race, I'll probably throw a couple of dollars on longshots like Candy Boy and Wicked Strong.

Have a great day at the races!

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