LAS VEGAS, NV — The last decade was all about California at Churchill Downs. I’ll Have Another, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist and Justify. Five of the last eight winners of the Kentucky Derby (G1) came from the West Coast.
But unless Honor A. P. or a wild card comes through, this will be the second year in a row that California is denied a photo op with the big floral horseshoe on the Churchill Downs infield.
Bettors certainly believe that will be the case, especially after they made New York-bred, New York-owned, New York-trained Tiz The Law (11-10) close to an even-money favorite last weekend in the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager. That was the shortest price for an individual horse in the now 22 years that the KDFW has been offered.
Things are different this year, of course, what with the longer road to the Louisville and the fact that Tiz The Law demonstrated his ability in a prep as long as the Derby itself – if a million-dollar race like the Travers (G1) may be called a “prep.” If Tiz The Law were to wear the roses Sept. 5, he would be the first to have won twice at 1 1/4 miles since Cañonero II in 1971.
The pandemic caused most of this, but it is not solely responsible for the eastward movement of the chalk. If the Derby had been run on its traditional date in May, Tiz The Law might have been the favorite. At 5-1 he was the shortest-priced individual 3-year-old in April’s KDFW. Maxfield, from Kentucky, and Nadal, from California, were next at 9-1. Then they got hurt, and it has been Tiz The Law’s stage since.
With trainer Barclay Tagg and lead owner Jack Knowlton, Tiz The Law brings back memories of Funny Cide in 2003. That was also the last time that a Derby winner came right out of New York, albeit the wintertime trail through the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct instead of the rewritten scheduling of the state’s two biggest races.
Art Collector (8-1 KDFW) would be taking what might seem a more familiar route to a Derby victory. Actually, he would be the first winner to have had his final prep in Kentucky since Street Sense in 2007, when the Blue Grass (G2) was run on a Polytrack surface at Keeneland. The last Derby winner that had a final prep on Kentucky dirt was Charismatic in 1999.
Meanwhile, Honor A. P. (8-1) has never left California. Not that trainer John Shirreffs wanted to make him a home body. Coronavirus restrictions discouraged a trip to the Arkansas Derby (G1). Instead, Honor A. P. stayed in Southern California, won the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and finished second in the Shared Belief. He could become the second Derby winner in a row and the eighth since 2001 to have lost his final prep. One of the eight exceptions, 50-1 long shot Giacomo in 2005, was also trained by Shirreffs.
Looking for his sixth Derby victory, Baffert has Authentic (11-1), Uncle Chuck (15-1) and Thousand Words (25-1) as candidates out of his California stable, although none carries the betting respect that his graduates American Pharoah and Justify had on their way to Triple Crowns.
Although he could join Country House and make it two consecutive Derby winners that emerged from the Arkansas Derby, King Guillermo (19-1) is taking an unconventional journey to Churchill Downs. After his second-place finish to Nadal at Oaklawn Park, he got a two-month break before trainer Juan Carlos Ávila put him back on the work tab last month.
Records are incomplete before the Great Depression, but it is known that Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, had 238 days off before he won the 1919 Derby. So while his 126 days between races would not be a record, King Guillermo might be looking at the longest break for a Derby winner in 101 years.
One thing that Tiz The Law, Art Collector, Honor A. P., Authentic, King Guillermo and Thousand Words have in common is that they have one or more BRIS Speed Ratings of at least 102 in their past performances. Of the last 26 Derby winners, 22 have filled that bill.
Whether that optic involving nothing but 3-year-olds should apply to 3 1/2-year-olds racing on Labor Day Weekend instead of the middle of spring is a whole nuther matter, giving horseplayers one more wrinkle in a complicated Derby year.