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California Chrome is the horse to beat in Derby

His early success might have seemed questionable, but California Chrome has gone from suspect to a big-time contender.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I always try to separate the Kentucky Derby story from the horse, but admittedly, it is not easy. California Chrome certainly brings the best story to this Derby. Even before I knew the story, I was pretty much convinced he was the best horse.

The college hoops regular season was wearing down, the conference tournaments about to begin when I sat down to watch the San Felipe Stakes on March 8 at Santa Anita. I thought Midnight Hawk, trained by Bob Baffert, would be favored. I was surprised when a California-bred I really did not know was bet down to 7-5.

The players at Santa Anita obviously knew something I did not. They knew California Chrome was special. I knew it, too, when the horse left Midnight Hawk on the far turn and started running in the stretch as if the race had just started.

Still, I wondered whether this was only a one-time thing. Six of the colt's first eight races had come in races restricted to California-breds. And he had not been competitive in the others.

So I called a friend in California who put the horse's entire career in context, explaining that he got much better after he got blinkers and Lasix following his third start and that he had legitimate excuses for the losses after that time.

Then, I went back and watched the replays of all 10 of his races, noting the colt's development from race to race, to a 2-year-old that started very early, April 26, 2013, to a 3-year-old that was running very fast and winning by huge margins.

Was he only a speed horse that was winning because he was running on speed-favoring tracks in Southern California? I did not see that. I saw a relaxed animal with speed on command, the kind of instant acceleration that separates the good horses from the stars.

So, there I was sitting courtside at the Jerry Jones Dome watching the Santa Anita Derby on my laptop while Connecticut and Florida were running up and down the court a few feet away. When California Chrome, completely relaxed and wasting no energy until the far turn, ran away from the field in the stretch, I walked down press row to tell my sports editor, Chuck Bausman, that I had the Derby winner.

Nothing in the last 4 weeks has changed my thinking. I went back and watched the replays of all 10 races again. I like California Chrome even more than I did that day in Texas.

This is a horse with actual race experience, unlike so many of these lightly raced horses that will be in the starting gate with him. California Chrome has already raced 10 times, once in every month except August, October and February since that debut.

I do not think it is a coincidence that California Chrome blew up when united with veteran Derby-winning jockey (War Emblem, 2002) Victor Espinoza. Horse and rider are 4-for-4 together, winning by a combined 24 1/4 lengths. In a 21-year career, Espinoza has won 3,110 races, with mount earnings of $161 million. He has been in the fire.

Can CC get beat? Of course. It is the Derby. Holy Bull got beat and went on to be Horse of the Year in 1994. Point Given got beat and went to be Horse of the Year in 2001.

If CC breaks bad and gets more than a few lengths behind in this crazy, 20-horse field, the colt could get very uncomfortable, use energy far too soon and have nothing for the finish. If, as I expect, his tactical speed gets him into the race from the start and he has a comfortable position coming out of the first turn, I think he could run away from this field just as he ran away from the fields he crushed in Califorornia.

Obviously, this is the strongest field of horses CC has ever faced. This Derby has the winners of the Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Louisiana Derby, Risen Star Stakes, Fountain of Youth, Spiral Stakes, Sunland Derby and Robert Lewis Stakes, major Derby preps all. But those races were all won by different horses. Only California Chrome was able to win two major Derby preps and no horse won his races like CC won his.

California Chrome is the best horse. He is the most likely winner.

And if he wins, I really need to have the superfecta. To that end, my more recent replay review has been about finding the horse or horses most likely to finish second, third and fourth.

It is complicated, just because there are so many unknowns about how a 20-horse race will be run and how potential in-race scenarios might affect the outcome.

If the race is run as I anticipate, California Chrome will discourage all the speed horses with a strong move around the far turn. So, I will try to beat horses such as Vicar's in Trouble, Wildcat Red, Chitu, General a Rod and Pable Del Monte. We Miss Artie and Harry's Holiday just look too slow.

Which still leaves me 12 horses. I especially like Medal Count as a very live longshot. Intense Holiday is drawing major attention from the clockers. And my man Rick Pitino has a big future book bet on the horse at 50-1. Those two horses certainly will be on my super ticket, along with some combination of the 10 I have not mentioned, and who knows what else when I stop crunching numbers tomorrow afternoon.

In the end, it is all about California Chrome. If he wins, I am dangerous. If he does not win . . . Let's not go there.