LOUISVILLE, Ky.: Trainer Art Sherman was concerned Tuesday morning when he found California Chrome sound asleep.
You don’t want a groggy colt, with the Kentucky Derby just days away.
Turns out, the probable Derby favorite was still on West Coast time after flying east Monday. Although 5 a.m. was rise-and-shine time in Kentucky, it was still the middle of the night back at his California base.
“I was concerned he might be tired,” Sherman said. “Then I got to thinking it was only 2 o’clock California time. He was just sacked out, sleeping away.”
The Santa Anita Derby winner quickly snapped to, and headed out to the track for his first tour of Churchill Downs. Shrugging off any jet lag, California Chrome was alert and eager for a jog over the surface still muddy from Monday’s heavy rain.
“My exercise rider said it was the best the horse has felt in a long time,” Sherman said. “He enjoyed the track a lot. He was different, more aggressive since he got here. So that was a good sign.”
In a break with tradition, California Chrome did not wear a yellow Derby saddle cloth because of a typo. His name was misspelled as Califorina Chrome. Churchill Downs has ordered a corrected one.
The chestnut colt with the prominent white blaze completed his serious training at Los Alamitos Race Course before heading to Kentucky. The mission for Sherman and his team will be keeping California Chrome happy and focused from now until Saturday. Most of the remaining drills will involve getting the horse familiar with the paddock and starting gate.
Sherman doesn’t believe the noise from an anticipated crowd of more than 140,000 on Saturday will bother his horse.
“He loves people,” the trainer said. “He’s a people horse. He had a lot of attention in California before he left. There were wall-to-wall people all around him and he never turned a hair.”
This will be the first time California Chrome, winner of his last four races by a combined 24¼ lengths, races outside his home state.
New York state of mind
Funny Cide blazed the trail in 2003, becoming the first and still only New York-bred horse to capture the Derby.
This year, there are two contenders from the Empire State: Samraat and Uncle Sigh. Rick Violette, Samraat’s trainer, sees that as evidence the state’s breeding program is on the upswing.
“There is no question the breeders in New York have stepped up,” he said. “We’ve been encouraging them to do that. There is money there to help improve the quality of the New York bred, and I think this is a great example of it.”
Of the two New Yorkers, Samraat is the more accomplished. He won his first five races, including victories over Uncle Sigh in the Withers and Gotham stakes. His first defeat came in the Wood Memorial, where he finished second to Wicked Strong.
“I thought he passed a lot of internal tests that we hadn’t been confronted with before,” Violette said of the Wood. “It was the first time he was surrounded with horses in front of him and on the outside. That dynamic changes horses. All of a sudden they are not the only alpha male, and not necessarily controlling the race. We’ve run six times. Only one horse has beaten us, and we got a great education the day we got beat.”
Uncle Sigh, fifth in the Wood, has one win in five starts for trainer Gary Contessa.
This will be Contessa’s Derby debut. Violette has been to the Derby once before when Read the Footnotes ran seventh in 2004.