Physically, the two chestnuts do not look much alike, but the trail California Chrome is currently forging through the Triple Crown landscape, as well as, hearts and minds of racefans everywhere, is reminding me more and more of Smarty Jones with each passing race. Ten years removed at birth, the pair may have different records, and come from different ends of the country, but their similarities where it is most important, on the track, are becoming very apparent. Let’s take a look at how the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome compares to the three-year-old champion of 2004, Smarty Jones...
*-Neither horse was bred in Kentucky. It might seem like a trivial factoid, but reality is that Kentucky-breds dominate the Kentucky Derby. In fact, California Chrome broke a streak of nine straight bluegrass bred winners of the Derby, by becoming the first since Smarty Jones.
*-Both horses came to Churchill Downs as the Kentucky Derby favorite on a serious winning streak, dominating the Arkansas and California series preps for the Derby along the way.
*-Each chestnut colt was continuously doubted leading up to the Derby because of where their careers began: Smarty Jones at Philadelphia Park, and California Chrome in statebred races in California.
*-The pair of Derby winners employed a very similar running style in their careers. On rare occasion, they could wire the field on the way to victory, but almost always it was a 'lay close to the lead before striking on the turn' type of run that got the job done.
*-Concerns about their ability to go the distance persisted for both colts, due to the unproven nature of both of their sires. Interestingly, each of their grandsires (Gone West and Pulpit), were highly respected.
*-Whether it was for Someday Farm, or Dumbass Partners Racing, both homebreds emerged as the top horse of their crop from unlikely beginnings. The fact that Smarty Jones and California Chrome were not from large operations, adds to their popularity with the masses, and furthers the ‘American Dream’ aspect of thoroughbred racing.
*-While California Chrome had several more races than Smarty Jones as a juvenile, both colts promised things to come with romping wins in sprint stakes (Pennsylvania Nursery and King Glorious), to close out their 2yo seasons.
*-Both Smarty Jones and California Chrome silenced critics under the famed twin spires with ‘clearly the best’ performances in the Kentucky Derby. They each won with their familiar and similar stalking position trips, on the way to convincing victories in the Run for the Roses.
*-While their wins at Churchill Downs were convincing, their final times were not. Smarty Jones needed 2:04.06 to get home on a sloppy racing surface, and California Chrome completed the ten furlongs, over a fast track, in 2:03.66.
*-Unlike the Derby, neither colt needed to worry about size of the field in the Preakness, as a large percentage of their Louisville competition balked at the prospect of challenging the Derby winner in Baltimore.
Most of us cannot help but remember the exploits of Smarty Jones after winning the Kentucky Derby. The little colt that could won the 2004 Preakness by 11 ½-lengths as the 7-10 favorite in a field of ten. Two new shooters finished closest to him that day, in Rock Hard Ten and Eddington. The way he won the second leg of the Triple Crown captured the imagination of a nation, and he went to Belmont Park as racing’s new hero.
He ran his eyeballs out, pressuring strong fractions before opening up a sizable lead at the head of the stretch; unfortunately, the relentless rally of Birdstone ended Triple Crown dreams on that June afternoon in New York. Although Smarty Jones couldn’t quite seal the deal, he was admired greatly for laying it all on the line in the twelve furlong Belmont Stakes.
Is a similar path destined for California Chrome? Can he take the Triple Crown run of Smarty Jones one step farther? Stay tuned ... I know you will!