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California Chrome is the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby

Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

His status as the Kentucky Derby favorite is under fire, but California Chrome will have the last laugh.

LOUISVILLE -- Think of the Kentucky Derby as the NFL Draft, except with big hats and mint juleps. Stay with me here: There is this draft prospect, and he has been a sensational college player for three seasons. In most of his games, he has looked like a grown man among adolescents, awaiting a bigger stage on which to ply his trade and earn recognition (along with buckets of money). It is clear that he is the best player in the country and come draft night, he will be the No. 1 overall selection. The winner, as it were. He gets the blanket of roses.

Then comes the (now expanded) silly season between the bowl games and the draft, during which the player suffers draft-value death by a thousand tiny cuts. Every one of his collegiate snaps is analyzed in the minutest detail, and small imperfections float to the surface, eventually becoming bigger imperfections under the harsh light of draft analysis. His once impeccable college career becomes the subject of debate. Was he really all that good? Was the competition all that strong?. Then come the holes in his character, personal flaws that might make him just a little less employable. In the days immediately leading to the draft, the player is a shell of his collegiate self, a carcass on the war room floor, picked at by vultures who are searching for better options.

Except sometimes the player survives all of this and emerges from the tunnel of scrutiny precisely where he started: As the best player on the board. Hashtag Clowney.

GALLERY: Kentucky Derby preview

Back to the Derby. Twenty-seven days ago, a chestnut colt named California Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby, the most important West Coast prep race for the Kentucky Derby. It was Chrome's fourth consecutive stakes victory, by combined total of more than 24 lengths, and it was outrageously easy. In the home stretch, Chrome never felt the sting of jockey Victor Espinoza's whip and still finished 5 ¼ lengths in front of Hoppertunity, who three weeks earlier had won the Rebel Stakes, another key Derby prep, in Arkansas. After the Santa Anita Derby it was almost universally agreed that California Chrome was the deserving favorite for the Kentucky Derby and the best three-year-old racehorse in training, possibly by a wide margin. That was then.

Now we are on the eve of the running of the 140th Derby and California Chrome has undergone a full dose of draft-prospect dissection. He arrived in Kentucky by plane on Monday, only five days before the race, which many Derby analysts felt was too late to get accustomed to his surroundings. (Trainer Art Sherman had to awaken Chrome at 5 a.m. for a Tuesday morning jog, which concerned Sherman until he realized, "That's two in the morning for him.") Chrome has gone to the racetrack twice and some backstretchers have said that he hasn't looked comfortable running over the Churchill Downs surface, which was sloppy on Tuesday and muddy on Wednesday. "I don't think he liked it," said veteran trainer Dallas Stewart, who will saddle longshot Commanding Curve in the Derby. "He didn't look comfortable to me."

(On Thursday, after having seen California Chrome gallop twice, respected Daily Racing Form analyst Mike Welsch wrote, "He did not look comfortable at all galloping over a wet track here Wednesday and was stiff when coming out over a fast strip the following morning, before warming out of it and looking much the better the second time around the track. It's difficult to make an accurate assessment off just two sessions with no frame of reference, having never seen him trainer before. I have to respect him off his recent series of one-sided victories, but he's not giving off nearly the same kind of positive vibes training up to the race at Churchill Downs as last year's favorite and ultimate winner, Orb.")

LAYDEN: California Chrome: The Accidental Favorite

Wednesday evening's post-position draw triggered another round of Chrome angst. (The Derby post-position draw is undeniably important because of the of the unusual and unwieldy 20-horse field; it was painful watching Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong's trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, try to convince himself that the No. 20 post position wasn't a death sentence.) But after Chrome drew the No. 5 starting position, attention quickly turned to whether jockey Victor Espinoza would be able to break Chrome sharply (because in two of his last five starts, Chrome broke sluggishly) and even if he did break well, would he then be able to avoid getting cooked by a fast pace?

So, to review: From powerhouse Derby favorite, California Chrome devolved in three days to an overrated California shipper who came to Churchill too late, doesn't like the track, is prone to dwelling in the gate and can't be controlled while chasing a suicidal pace. Hence: No shot. He'll be sitting in the green room all night.

Having ingested all of this, I'm picking California Chrome to win the Derby. I'm not picking him because two weeks ago I spent four days in Southern California and wrote in Sports Illustrated about his unlikely path to his status as the Derby favorite, which he is, at 5-2. (But for sure, it's a hell of a story, as the purchase of a pretty, slow-footed filly turned into a colt worth millions ... today.) I'm picking him because his last two races -- the Santa Anita Derby and, before that, a 7 ¼-length win in the San Felipe Stakes -- are by a wide margin the two most impressive races by any three-year-old colt in America.

I'm picking him because I believe that he can repeat those performances on Saturday evening in the Derby, against horses that are simply athletically inferior. I'm betting on talent. The track? Chrome has been getting better with each day and he'll be plenty comfortable with the Churchill dirt by Saturday, when it's traditionally lightning fast. Traffic? Espinoza has been planning for the unexpected since he first got on the colt's back in December. The jockey took him back and circled the field in the California Cup Derby in December, and then purposely put him on the lead in the San Felipe. "I wanted to try different things with him," says Espinoza. "I know that sounds crazy, but I wanted to see what he could do. And he can do anything."

LAYDEN: At the Kentucky Derby, the race belongs to the jockeys

At his best, California Chrome glides over the surface of a race track like he is weightless. I expect to see that horse on Saturday.

The race will most likely be blindingly fast, just as the last two Derbies were. "There's a lot of speed inside," says trainer Todd Pletcher, who has four starters in the race. "I expect it to be quick." Because of the large field, fast horses assigned inside post positions must get away from the starting gate quickly to avoid getting caught in traffic. Louisiana Derby winner Vicar's In Trouble, with jockey Rosie Napravnik, is stuck in the No. 1 post. Horse and rider caught a bit of a break on Thursday when Hoppertunity, who was in the No. 11 post, dropped out of the race -- the starters in posts one through 10 moved one spot to the outside, meaning that Vicar's in Trouble will actually break from the second stall. Right next to him, in the No. 2 hole, Uncle Sigh is wearing blinkers for the first time; last year, when Palace Malice wore blinkers for the first time in the Derby, he blasted through the first half-mile in 45.1 seconds, one of the fastest first halves in Derby history (which set up Orb to win the race from far behind). Vicar's in Trouble and Uncle Sigh will be joined from the outside by General A Rod (post No. 8), Wildcat Red (post No. 10) and Chitu (post No. 13), and that group will cook through the early part of the race.

Espinoza, meanwhile, will push California Chrome out of the gate alongside the speed horses, and then settle him back into a second flight. "Victor can do anything he wants with that horse," says veteran jockey Gary Stevens, a three-time Derby winner who will ride Candy Boy on Saturday. The second flight will also include Wood Memorial runner-up Samraat, Louisiana Derby runner-up Intense Holiday and Rebel runner-up Tapiture. Look for Arkansas Derby winner Danza to stalk California Chrome, and expect Wicked Strong to steady his way into the middle of the pack, clear of trouble on the outside.

The speed will die entering the far turn, because in the Derby the speed always dies. Espinoza will let California Chrome carry him to the front (Espinoza has used his whip on Chrome only once in four races) and he will extend to a four-length lead leaving the quarter pole. Tapiture will fade, saving the Derby and the racing game in general from the storm that would ensue if rainer Steve Asmussen, star of PETA's notorious horse racing video, won the roses. Danza will remain in the fight. Then come the closers: longshot Medal Count and the determined Wicked Strong.

LAYDEN: Clouds of controversy loom over Churchill Downs during Derby week

Espinoza will keep California Chrome together beneath the wire, a length clear of the equally tough Danza. Chrome becomes the first California-bred Derby winner in 52 years, and at age 77, trainer Art Sherman becomes the oldest Derby-winning trainer in history. (Charlie Whittingham was 76 when he saddled Sunday Silence in 1989). Wicked Strong flies down the lane for third and Medal Count gets up for fourth.

The green room is empty. Chrome puts on the baseball cap and the No. 1 jersey. Order is restored.

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