Derby Fever…


“Here’s lookin’ at you, California!”

A few seasons ago, it was California Chrome and the DAP that rocked the American Kentucky Derby world in one of the most improbable Derby back stories.

This time around, the back stories of the 1-1/4 miles Derby, run exclusively for three-year-olds, were just as luscious:
— Venezuela’s leading trainer, Antion Sano, twice kidnapped in his home country for his horse racing stables’ fortunes, left Venezuela and started over from scratch in the USA, acquiring Gunnevera for $15,000. The horse earned an unlikely Derby spot in the exclusive field of 20.

— Seven-time Trainer of the Year Todd Pletcher, having captured one Derby crown from 45 entries, entered his usual numbers to Run for the Roses, but this time he had the last minute favorite, Always Dreaming, winner of the Florida Derby, and the favorite had won the Derby over the last four years.

— Patch, one of three Pletcher entries, made the Derby field without the benefit of two eyes. His left orb was removed a year ago when a severe infection was successfully halted to save his life.

— Bob Baffert, meanwhile, had no entries in a dry year, after having the Derby favorite in the field for… years! No problem. He won the Kentucky Oaks (the Derby version for three-year-old fillies) the day before with Abel Tasman, who charged from last to first under veteran jockey Mike Smith.

— Always Dreaming was sired by Bodemeister, a Baffert Derby favorite in 2012. Bodemeister finished second that year.

— Trainer Mark Casse, who years before owned a house one door down from the Churchill Downs track, where the Derby is run, took on his son, Norman, as an assistant. The two had been separated for many years after Mark’s divorce from Norman’s mother.

— Weatherman Jim Cantore, who’s “thunder snow romp” was rebroadcast for a whole Winter season, picked — ready? — Thunder Snow to win the Derby! But Thunder Snow didn’t like the sloppy track and on-and-off-rainy day, apparently preferring snow, as he bucked just out of the gate and made it known that he was done for the day.

— Jockey Rajiv Maragh, six months removed from a 16-month rehabilitation following massive injuries from a track spill, gained a Derby mount when trainer Graham Motion found himself needing a jockey for Irish War Cry, one of the early favorites to win the race.

— In the end, all-time leading money winner among jockeys, John Velazquez, and Pletcher, teamed for the Derby win. Although having worked together for many years, it marked the first time the duo crossed the Derby finish line ahead of the pack together, and the dream came true. Pletcher, by the way, tied his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, this year for most career Derby entries at 48.

The dark brown colt Always Dreaming led the field early, then brightened the day in a 2-3/4 lengths victory that included a powerful, kick-away stretch run and a fourth straight racing triumph.

Here’s the rest of the finishing field:
(2) Lookin at Lee; (3) Battle of Midway; (4) Classic Empire; (5) Practical Joke; (6) Tapwrit (Pletcher’s third entry); (7) Gunnevera; (8) McCraken; (9) Gormley; (10) Irish War Cry; (11) Hence; (12) Untrapped; (13) Girvin; (14) Patch; (15) J Boys Echo; (16) Sonneteer; (17) Fast and Accurate; (18) Irap; (19) State of Honor.

Photo from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg

Champions In Sport

Along Came California Chrome


His name was drawn from a cowboy hat. California Chrome — California for his home state, Chrome for the horse racing term used to describe the white splashes on his coat — came flashing into the Thoroughbred racing scene in 2014 as an underrated three-year-old.

He astonished by winning two of the three classics for three-year-olds, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He failed, however, to sweep the Triple Crown when he was beaten in the Belmont Stakes. His bid to become the first horse to win the three classics since Affirmed (1978) was ruined.

But his popularity went skyward with the American public even when his four-year-old season went awry in 2015.

In March of this year, with $6 Million in earnings already under his girth, he shipped to Dubai for the global World Cup — and won, taking over the all-time money earner title in North American Thoroughbred horse racing.

Up to the November 5 Breeders’ Cup World Championships Classic raced in the United States, the five-year-old California Chrome had remained undefeated in his 2016 campaign. Just by a neck, as he was caught in the final yards by Arrogate, California Chrome’s perfect season was snapped.

Only the third horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby and the Dubai World Cup, California Chrome remains in training to race one more time, in January of 2017 in America’s Pegasus World Cup. A victory there would put him in a class by himself.

Nonetheless, his money title of over $14.4 Million would seem secure for some time to come. The title had been held by Curlin, at $10.5 Million since 2008.

Photo from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg


American Pharoah…


The last Thoroughbred racehorse to win America’s Triple Crown — Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes — was American Pharoah in 2015. And, no, that’s not an incorrect spelling, per say. American Pharoah got his moniker in a naming contest, and the name was accepted as spelled and submitted — American Pharoah. It stuck for purposes of Thoroughbred racing.

American Pharoah also captured the 2015 Breeders’ Cup World Championships Classic. In so doing, he became the first ever Grand Slam winner — Triple Crown plus BC Classic — in Thoroughbred racing.

But it was California Chrome, 2014’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, who became Thoroughbred racing’s all time money leader this season when he zoomed to victory in March in the richest race on Earth, Dubai’s World Cup. At five-years-old, CC remained unbeaten in 2016 until he raced second in the BC Classic on November 5.

Photo from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg