The California gold rush to the Kentucky Derby, which swept aside almost all comers during the 1980s, dried up abruptly when that decade turned the corner. But now, with the 120th Derby less than a week away, California might be back. At least the West Coast troupe has the numbers.
In what is being projected as one of the toughest Derbies to win in years, seven California-based 3-year-olds--nearly half the field--are expected to run next Saturday, and each is a contender.
Led by the first three finishers in last month's Santa Anita Derby--Brocco, Tabasco Cat and Strodes Creek--the rest of the California Seven are Valiant Nature, Soul Of The Matter, Blumin Affair and Powis Castle.
Those four hit the Derby trail early, running in prep races in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arkansas in recent weeks, and although their five starts produced only a string of second-place finishes, their trainers came away encouraged.
From the East, the only obstacle in their path might be Holy Bull. In March, when trainer Jimmy Croll's horse won the Florida Derby, the only California horses in the field were a couple of badly beaten third-raters, so no East-West comparisons could be made. But a month later, in the Blue Grass Stakes at nearby Keeneland, Holy Bull won by 3 1/2 lengths over Valiant Nature, the Hollywood Futurity winner over Brocco.
"What do I think of Brocco now?" Croll said after the Blue Grass. "Well, part of that question was answered in this race. The California horses beat each other all the time, and they're very similar to Valiant Nature. At least I'm hoping that they're all the same. My horse has a good shot with those (California) horses."
Although Holy Bull has won seven of eight starts and will go off at close to even money Saturday, California trainers aren't daunted.
"You know what happens to favorites in the Derby, don't you?" said Jack Van Berg, who trains Blumin Affair.
Since Spectacular Bid's victory in 1979, 14 consecutive post-time favorites have been defeated.
"Somebody will run with Holy Bull (early), and then we'll see what happens," said Van Berg, who saddled the winning Alysheba in 1987.
"With this colt, I don't feel quite as good about going into this Derby as I did with Alysheba," Van Berg said. "But I think this colt might be fitter going into the race. I think he's fit enough right now, and I don't plan any works for him during Derby week. We lost some time with Alysheba, when he had that surgery for that entrapped epiglottis."
Before Gato Del Sol came out of the West to win the Derby in a 21-1 upset in 1982, there had been some rocky, embarrassing years for California contenders.
"Cassaleria has only one eye and a lot of courage," someone wrote about trainer Ron McAnally's Derby horse in '82. "But the real knock against him is not based on vision, but geography. He's accustomed to running on drag strips. California horses ring up swift times on that rubberized asphalt and then spin their wheels on the Churchill Downs surface."
That said, California horses came, didn't spin their wheels and conquered. After Gato Del Sol, Sunny's Halo won the Derby in 1985. Calling Sunny's Halo a California horse might be a stretch because both of his Derby preps were at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, but the sore-legged colt wintered with trainer David Cross at Hollywood Park and rounded into shape with the help of the track's swimming pool.
There was no gray area about the California horses who won after that: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in '87, Winning Colors in '88 and Sunday Silence in '89. Even without Sunny's Halo, there were five West Coast winners in eight years. There were no more jokes about California racetracks.
What has happened to the hopefuls from the West since 1990 is unrelated to track surfaces, quality of horses or training philosophies. Simply put, California horses have had an incredible run of bad luck even before the last four Derbies have been run.
In 1990, the 19-10 favorite was Mister Frisky, the Santa Anita Derby winner. He was that Derby rarity, an undefeated horse, and no Derby horse had gone into the race with 16 victories in a row. The first 13 had been in Puerto Rico, against far lesser opposition, but Mister Frisky's Santa Anita form validated his ability.
During Derby week, rumors that something wasn't right about Mister Frisky were discounted by trainer Laz Barrera. Mister Frisky, second after six furlongs, was eighth at the wire, and 2 1/2 weeks later, after a third-place finish in the Preakness, the colt underwent emergency surgery for an abscess in his throat and almost died.
In 1991, there was another hard-luck Santa Anita Derby winner. Dinard was working poorly at Churchill Downs, and a torn ligament was found in one of his legs. California had to settle for Best Pal's second-place finish behind Strike The Gold.
The next year, Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy, the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, was scratched on the morning of the race because of a bruised hoof. Lil E. Tee scored a one-length victory over Casual Lies, who had finished two lengths behind A.P. Indy at Santa Anita.
Last year, two of California's better Kentucky Derby candidates were through early. Gilded Time and River Special, who had finished first and third, respectively, in the national voting for best 2-year-old colt in 1992, were injured during the winter. They didn't even make it to the Santa Anita Derby, and the horse who won that race, Personal Hope, ran fourth at Churchill Downs.
This year, the California contingent would have been even deeper if Irgun, who won Aqueduct's Gotham and Wood Memorial, hadn't been eliminated from the Derby because of a hoof abscess last week.
Irgun was running in New York because his trainer, Steve Young, believed the pickings were easier than in California. After Irgun ran a strong second to Strodes Creek in a March race at Santa Anita, Young convinced the colt's owners, Brandon and Marianne Chase, that there was a mother lode in New York.
"That Santa Anita allowance race is going to stand up as a race that could have been a stake," Young said. "It was on a par with a stake as far as toughness."
"Maybe we don't train our horses tough enough back home," McGaughey said. "Maybe we should re-evaluate how we're doing things."
A look at the California-trained horses who are entered in Saturday's Kentucky Derby:
HORSE: BROCCO Trainer: Randy Winick Jockey: Gary Stevens Last Race: 1st, Santa Anita Derby
HORSE: TABASCO CAT Trainer: Wayne Lukas Jockey: Pat Day Last Race: 2nd, Santa Anita Derby
HORSE: STRODES CREEK Trainer: Charlie Whittingham Jockey: Eddie Delahoussaye Last Race: 3rd, Santa Anita Derby
HORSE: VALIANT NATURE Trainer: Ron McAnally Jockey: Laffit Pincay Last Race: 2nd, Blue Grass
HORSE: SOUL OF THE MATTER Trainer: Richard Mandella Jockey: Kent Desormeaux Last Race: 2nd, Lexington
HORSE: BLUMIN AFFAIR Trainer: Jack Van Berg Jockey: Jerry Bailey Last Race: 2nd, Arkansas Derby
HORSE: POWIS CASTLE Trainer: Rodney Rash Jockey: Chris Antley Last Race: 2nd, Jim Beam
* DERBY TRIAL: A two-length victory in the slop by Numerous is not enough to persuade trainer Charlie Whittingham to run the colt in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. C14