Before the Kentucky Derby 2015 preps really get serious, I want to take a moment to talk about the two races in 2014 that I will never forget.
Game On Dude – Santa Anita Handicap
Game On Dude is one of the best horses to never win a year-end championship. He also never won a Triple Crown race or a Breeders’ Cup. But he absolutely owned one of the most storied races in America – the Big Cap. Look at the history of the race: how Seabiscuit tried 3 times over four years to even win it once; how the legendary John Henry won it on a DQ to get his second victory; how Triple Crown winner Affirmed set the original speed record back in 1979.
Then take a look at the Dude’s contributions: Chantal Sutherland became the first female jockey to win the Big Cap when she rode the Dude to victory in 2011; how he became the first horse to win the race in non-consecutive years in 2013; and finally, the third victory, in stakes-record time, at the ripe, old age of 7.
The Dude has a lot of fans, but many “experienced handicappers” had written him off as an over-the-hill, fading frontrunner. It wasn’t hard to get that impression after his poor performance in the San Antonio the month before. The Dude was also facing Champion Will Take Charge, 3 yrs his junior, and BC Classic winner, Mucho Macho Man, two worthy rivals. I watched the race from HRN HQ and cried when he flashed under the wire 2 lengths ahead of Will Take Charge.
He would not win again, but he always gave his all, and when he retired to Old Friends in November, I made sure to visit him as soon as I could. One day, he will stand among the other immortals in bronze at Santa Anita.
California Chrome – Kentucky Derby
Early last year, I heard a song on the radio, and a few of the lyrics stuck out as particularly suited to describe what it means when you have a really good, potentially life-changing horse. I looked up the complete song, and as I read over the words, more of them seemed to fit the mood of the Derby trail. The song was Counting Stars. The very first few lines are what got me – “I’ve been losing sleep/dreaming about the things that we could be/… no more counting dollars/we’ll be counting stars…”
Horse owners invest countless hours of time and vast fortunes to get to the Derby. When a young horse has that breakthrough win, that eye-popping workout, that’s when the Derby fever sets in and the counting stars begins.
No horse since Smarty Jones a decade prior has embodied this feeling more perfectly than California Chrome.
I was standing at the rail on Derby day at Churchill Downs, directly in front of the winners’c circle, surrounded by 150,000+ racing fans under a fantastic, blue sky on an instagram-worthy spring day as California Chrome galloped to victory. I had taken video of the stretch drive, but by the time he thundered by me I had completely forgotten the camera was running.