Horse Racing: Was California Chrome’s Derby Win Really That Good?

Some people are numbers people…..some are not…I like to think I’m a hybrid…I am a little bit both. I like to look at things visually and then look at the numbers.

Perhaps I should commit one way or another or I wouldn’t be having the problem I am with California Chrome and his win in Horse Racing’s most illustrious race, the 2014 Kentucky Derby, last week.

Looking at the race from a visually stand point, California Chrome did nothing wrong.

He ran perfectly, was ridden perfectly and the 1 ¾ length victory doesn’t tell the whole story. After watching the race (about 40 times or so) California Chrome was clearly the best horse in the race.

I had concerns because he did show a tendency to break a beat slowly in the past. I even said so in my 2014 Kentucky Derby preview. Those fears quickly dissipated when this colt broke beautifully and, more importantly, he didn’t get touched by another horse within the first several hundred yards. (Almost impossible not to happen in a 20 horse field).

Jockey Victor Espinosa quickly found himself too close to the early lead and smartly took a hold of horse. Espinosa wrangled him back to third and there they sat, out of trouble and in perfect stalking position, for the first mile of the race.

From there, and just inside the quarter pole, Espinosa simply shook the reigns at the big, leggy, chestnut and…presto…in the blink of an eye and as a team, they were five lengths in front towards the upper stretch.

Coming down the lane, Espinosa simply flashed the whip at the horse and held a (no pun intended) commanding lead all the way down the stretch. It wasn’t until Espinosa began a (very) premature celebration, that Commanding Curve was able to close the gap more than it should have been. I estimate if Espinosa wasn’t raising his hand in the air and waving to the crowd several yards before the wire, the margin would have been more like 3-4 lengths. Regardless….visually….it was a very impressive win.

Then I took a look at the numbers.

First of all, the pace was slow early. That :23 second first quarter was third slowest in the last 10 years and the :47.1 half mile was tied for the second slowest half mile in the past 10 years as well.

The final time (2:03.3) was the slowest Derby (run over a fast track) in the last 40 years, since Cannonade in 1974.

California Chrome’s last quarter mile was a pedestrian like :26.1.

Moreover, for those of you who put credence into speed rating figures, the average Derby winning speed figure (since their inception) is 109. (The average Preakness is 110 and Belmont is 109)….California Chrome’s Derby speed figure? a well below average 97. In fact, that 97 is the lowest speed figure of any Kentucky Derby winner…ever.

With the exception of Giacomo’s win in 2005 and possibly I’ll Have Another’s win in 2012, the 97 California Chrome registered in the 140th Derby is not even close to the last 10 or so Derby winners. (See below)


2013- Orb- 104

2012 -I’ll Have Another- 101

2011-Animal Kingdom-103

2010- Super Saver- 104

2009- Mine That Bird- 105

2008- Big Brown- 109

2007- Street Sense-110

2006- Barbaro- 111

2005- Giacomo- 100

2004- Smarty Jones- 107


Start doing the math, in route distances two Speed Figure points equals about one length. That, in turn, means Barbaro would have beaten California Chrome by seven lengths. Going back further, the Amazonian filly Winning Colors (113) in 1998 would have destroyed California Chrome as by the numbers she would have been him by eight lengths and 1990 winner Unbridled (116) by almost 10….even in Giacomo’s fluke win (he only won one more time after the Derby in his career) would still have beaten California Chrome by 1 ½ lengths.

After thinking and researching it a little more, I can come up with two reasons of why the numbers came back so low, but again, what I come up with is conflicting as are the numbers vs. the visually aspect of the Derby.

One, coming off back to back monster performances/wins in the Santa Anita Derby (scoring a 107 speed figure) and the San Felipe Stakes (scoring a 108) perhaps California Chrome simply “bounced”.

This, when I thought about it, is tremendous. I mean, think about it, in a race in which your horse bounces he opens up five lengths on his competitors at the head of the stretch and cruises home by almost two? Does that sound like a typical bounce performance? Hardly…is it possible that even California Chrome’s “bounce” races are still good enough to win major races? If that’s the case, readers, this is one hell of a horse.

Two, I saw a stakes run some 2 ½ hours earlier on the card where the winner ran seven furlongs in a lighting 1:21 flat. Logically, on a dry (little or no humidity) day, the track surface should only get drier and faster as the day goes on and in turn should make the track play faster….but it didn’t?.

Yes, I know…..big, big, difference in a seven furlong (sprint) race than the 10 furlong Derby…three furlongs is a lot different race, but still by my calculations, California Chrome ran seven furlongs in about 1:24 (give or take a little)…a full three seconds or some 15 lengths slower than that previous stakes race….that’s a lot to me.

So, after sifting through all this information the last few days, there are some things I know and some things I don’t know.

I know California Chrome, especially with Shared Belief still sidelined, is the best three year old in the land. I also know if California Chrome is going the win the Preakness, he’s going to have to improve (speed figure wise) off the Derby because going by what history says, he’ll need to run back to either the Santa Anita Derby or San Felipe in order to be competitive. (a distinct possibility, of course).

What I don’t know is why the numbers came back so poor. Maybe the track was playing inconstantly, maybe California Chrome did bounce, maybe California Chrome is not as good as I think….or maybe…just maybe…I have entirely too much time on my hands to question the horse and just be satisfied with the fact that California Chrome won the Derby….and not worry so much about how he won it. You know?

 Thanks for reading…







  • Stuart H.

    For crying out loud! You act as though there is only one speed figure. The Beyer. Brisnet had CC’s Derby at 103 (medium-low), Roman’s PF was -61 (fast), TimeForm USA had the horse race as faster still due to the wind and the track, and Thoroform has the horse tied for his fastest performance (a “0”). This just shows there is more ways than one to rate a race speed-wise, and there are numbers, lies and damn lies.

    The fact that Beyer initially had the race at 91 and Moss said they raised it to 97 due to the wind shows you they have no idea how to rate that track variant at 10f for that race. Because BSFs NEVER factor in wind to my knowledge…

    Use the eye test.

  • ML NJ

    FTR, CC really earned a 91 but Beyer & Co, were too embarrassed to give a 91 to a Derby winner.

    That said, the Derby is a RACE and CC and Espinosa’s job was to finish in front. They were near the lead and took over. What else were they supposed to do?

  • Lyle P Logan

    Up the chute 1/4 mile before the wire the first time into a fierce HEAD wind. 23 flat actually pretty quick for that. Around the final turn into the stretch, same FIERCE head wind, and home in 26 for the 9th and 10th furlongs. Contrary to your analysis… really a monster performance.

    • Lyle P Logan

      Oh, and I’m not particularly a “fan” of this horse, by the way. Am beginning to think this is either a very weak crop or “the best of them” are on the sidelines (Sh. Bel.) or not even yet debuted…

  • jack

    Time only counts in Jail