LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Those around California Chrome describe him as a curious horse, a fact that was plainly evident Thursday morning when he galloped with his chestnut face cocked to the side, watching the crowd watching him as he completed his routine activities over the Churchill Downs track.
There is a lot for the colt to take in these days as the eyes of the racing community have been firmly affixed on him since his a 5 ¼-length win in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
His status as the Kentucky Derby favorite is valid. However, no race is more successful at taking down brilliant runners with its pitfalls than the 1 ¼-mile classic staring him and 18 of his classmates in the eye Saturday.
Having won his past four races by a combined margin of 24 ¼ lengths, California Chrome is carrying a level of hype that rivals the chatter Big Brown inspired before his Derby victory in 2008.
While the colt's form has been devoid of holes since he began his current win streak with a 6 ¼-length victory in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park last Dec. 13, Derby history is littered with can't-lose horses — Easy Goer (1989), Point Given (2001) — doing just that.
Having done all his major pre-race preparation at trainer Art Sherman's base at Los Alamitos in California, California Chrome did not conduct a timed workout over the Churchill Downs track — a routine only I'll Have Another (2012), Giacomo (2005) and Funny Cide (2003) got away with leading up to their wins on the first Saturday in May.
Though some also question whether California Chrome can outrun some supposed distance limitations in his pedigree, Sherman believes a route of ground is the least of the colt's problems.
"To me, he can run 1 ½ miles," said Sherman, who was the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. "He can run behind horses, he can run in front, he's shown me things that a good horse does.
"I always have concerns. You've got 20 head of horses in the race, sometimes you have the traffic problems, horses backing up in your face and are you going to get through. I would like to see him no worse than fourth or fifth down the backside. That would be perfect to me."
The field for the Kentucky Derby was reduced to 19 runners when trainer Bob Baffert declared Thursday that Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity would miss the race with a suspected bruise in his left front foot.
Pablo Del Monte, third in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes, drew into the field off the also-eligible list, but his connections chose not to start him and will look to the Preakness Stakes instead.
As has become customary this time of year, six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has a multi-horse arsenal for the Kentucky Derby as he will saddle Grade I winners Danza and We Miss Artie along with graded stakes winners Intense Holiday and Vinceremos.
Danza launched himself onto the radar with his 4 ¾-length win in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 12 while Intense Holiday blew his stablemate We Miss Artie away when the two worked in company last weekend.
"In particular, Intense Holiday and Danza have trained really well since they've been here," said Pletcher, who won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver. "Both seem to be peaking at the right time doing really well."
Trainer and Louisville native Dale Romans is seeking his first Kentucky Derby triumph and he said he has rarely felt as confident leading one over as he does with Grade III winner Medal Count.
Medal Count will be making his third start in five weeks after winning the Grade III Transylvania opening day at Keeneland and running second to fellow Derby entrant Dance With Fate in the Blue Grass Stakes eight days later.
"I feel better than I ever have about any of my chances going into the Derby," said Romans, who has had four prior starters. "I think that we really fit well with this group. I think he's peaking at the right time. I think he's got all the parts that it takes to win a Derby."
Samraat, winner of the Grade III Withers and Gotham Stakes, and his rival Uncle Sigh are aiming to join Funny Cide as the only New York-breds to win the Derby while Ride On Curlin carries the services of three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.
"All the speed's on the inside," said trainer Billy Gowan of Ride On Curlin having to make his run from post No. 19. "I think they'll run out there, and I think we can just drop over. I'm hoping we can, anyhow."
Utapable wins Oaks
Untapable surged past My Miss Sophia entering the stretch and rolled to a 4-length victory Friday in the 140th Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.
Ridden by Rosie Napravnik, the overwhelming favorite in the $1 million race for 3-year-old fillies earned her third consecutive victory and fifth in seven starts.
Untapable stayed within reach of early leaders Sugar Shock, My Miss Sophia and Thank You Marylou before getting clear outside turning for home. The winner ran 1 ⅛ miles in 1 minute, 48.68 seconds and paid $4, $3.20 and $2.60. My Miss Sophia returned $4.20 and $4.40, and Unbridled Forever paid $6.00.
Empress of Midway, partly owned by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, was scratched after flipping in the gate.