California Chrome schools in the Churchill Downs paddock. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
Thursday morning was full of action at Churchill Downs; along with the customary chaos that surrounds the days before the Kentucky Derby, there was added drama to the early hours of the day that I’ll get to in just a little while.
My day began in the best possible way – by finding the horse whose photos were lost in my computer crisis of yesterday! I was lucky enough to arrive at the track just before the Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome was heading out for his morning gallop. He had a troupe of fans and press following him, and I happily joined in as the headliner horse made his way onto the oval.
California Chrome is a horse who seems to thrive on attention, and as he passed his paparazzi he was alert and happy.
Once on the track, California Chrome’s rider Willy Delgado stopped him and let him take in the scene, giving him pats on the neck the whole time.
After that, California Chrome headed to the Churchill Downs paddock to get used to that environment. Then, it was back to the track to gallop for two laps around the track. As I watched him, I was pleased to see that he was relaxed and happy; although some folks I’ve talked to have remarked that they don’t love how he moves over the surface here, I wasn’t bothered by his action. He’s not being pushed in the slightest during his gallops, and I think he is the legitimate favorite for the Derby.
Chrome’s regular jockey Victor Espinoza was in attendance to watch his Derby mount gallop, and he seemed very pleased by what he saw this morning.
After that, it was bath time for the big horse. (He’s actually not that big, physically; but he has a ton of presence to him.) Once again, Chrome hammed it up for the crowds around him, sticking out his tongue and just generally playing to his audience.
He never once was disturbed by the clacking of lenses and the chatter of his admirers. Instead, he put his head in Delgado’s arms for what had to be one of the dampest horsey hugs in history
Espinoza also got in on the love fest, giving Chrome big pats and rubs on the face.
The other Derby horse that came out early was Tapiture; he is a stunningly beautiful animal, and if you wanted to bet on him I wouldn’t talk you out of it. While he disappointed in his last start in the Arkansas Derby, he’s a horse with quite a résumé behind him and he very much looks like he belongs in this Kentucky Derby field.
After that, I had a short break until 8:30, which is the designated time for Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses to train. I decided to head to the rail and secure a good spot to take photos of the contenders since there are so many people here covering the race. My wonderful friend Nicole Russo, who works for the Daily Racing Form, was there with me, and as we waited for horses to arrive on the track something caught both of our eyes: we spied a woman walking toward us holding what looked distinctly like a marshmallow on a stick, which we both instantly coveted with all of our souls since we were absolutely starving.
We must have been staring at the poor woman in a very pointed way, because she walked over to us. We asked where she got her marshmallow and whether there were more for the taking. She looked incredibly startled and then replied that what she was holding was in fact a rose made out of toilet paper. She was there representing Cottonelle, which is running a Kentucky Derby promotion. I’m pretty sure that Nicole and I were the first people in her career to threaten to eat her product. But c’mon: it does kind of look like a marshmallow.
Anyway, after that bit of confusion it was time for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks contenders to strut their stuff. The first horse that I saw was also one of the most interesting for a very certain reason. Oaks runner Aurelia's Belle was led onto the track by her trainer Wayne Catalano, who proceeded to walk her back and forth right in front of the hundred or so photographers and videographers crowding the rail. At first I was confused, but then I understood what he was doing: he was desensitizing her to the crowd and noise that will pervade Oaks day. It’s a very canny move, and it’s a good example of why Catalano is at the top of this game.
Aurelia’s Belle had a good look at everyone, and once she was settled down Catalano released her and she had a very nice gallop around the track.
The horse I was very impressed with this morning was Samraat. Every time I see him he seems to get better and better, and he’s rapidly moving up on the list of my Derby picks.
One horse that I was not as happy with was sadly Wicked Strong. When he was coming around the turn he took a funny step and was pulled up pretty quickly. His pony came and picked him up, and they headed straight back to the barn. While the horse cooled out fine and is apparently A-OK, it was a discouraging moment for a horse I like a lot. I’ll be back to see what he does tomorrow.
Commanding Curve put in a nice gallop; he was controlled but eager, and if you look at the photo below you can see that his mouth is slightly open. That’s because he was pulling on his rider to try to go a little faster. That’s always a good attitude for a racehorse!
The next horse that I was very impressed with was Intense Holiday. He’s looking fantastic, and I very much liked the way he moved over the track today. There’s a reason that a lot of the media here are talking about him and, like Samraat, he’s a horse that’s rapidly moving up on my list of horses to back.
After the Derby contenders were finished galloping, I realized that there was one horse I hadn’t seen: Hoppertunity. As he was one of the Derby favorites, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t put in an appearance during training hours; so I decided to head over to his trainer Bob Baffert's barn to see what was up. When I arrived, I found a media frenzy, and to my dismay I learned that Hoppertunity was scratched from the Derby due to a bruised left front foot. What a disappointment, but it’s definitely the right thing to do for the horse and hopefully we’ll see him again in just two weeks for the Preakness.
Hoppertunity scratched from the Kentucky Derby. Left front foot issue. Baffert talking to press now. pic.twitter.com/kjSpfgmaQQ
— Americas Best Racing (@ABRLive) May 1, 2014
This news means that Pablo Del Monte has the opportunity to run in the Kentucky Derby. At the time of writing, his connections still haven’t made a commitment to the race. I went to trainer Wesley Ward’s barn to see what the story was, and while nothing was decided there were quite a few members of the media there to get the same scoop I was after. Pablo came to the front of his stall for a moment to see what all the fuss was about, but he wasn’t very impressed with us at all; he was much more interested in his hay net!
I don’t really blame him – I love food, too. I will say this, though: if he decides to run, he looked wonderful this morning. The big question with him is whether he’ll like running on the dirt – he doesn’t have a ton of experience on it, having scored all of his top-three finishes on artificial surfaces. But he’s a great-looking horse, and wouldn’t it be huge if the last-minute entry becomes the horse that wins the 140th Kentucky Derby!
That’s it for me today, and thank you so much for stopping by! I’ll be back tomorrow with all of the action from Kentucky Oaks day. Hit me up in the comments and let me know your picks!