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No matter how you look at it, winning the Kentucky Derby is a longshot. First of all to consider is the extreme degree of difficulty in winning a prize such as this. The big race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is a Grade 1 race of world-wide importance, widely acclaimed as the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” and literally everybody who breeds or buys a racing prospect would like to win it.

From a crop of 20-some thousand foals born annually in North America, only 20 are allowed to start in the first classic. So, just to get into the starting gate, each member in a typical full field of starters will have defied odds of thousands to one simply to earn a place in the starting gate.

And if we consider the effects of the pace at which the race is run, combined with the uncertainties of a trip round the oval and the choices made by jockeys and trainers, a typical Derby field might produce a half-dozen or more different results from 10 runnings of the same horses over the same course.

But a Derby horse has only one swing at the great prize, and everyone, from owners and press to trainers and grooms, knows how important a stroke of fortune can be.

That good luck does not begin at the Kentucky Derby.

Breeders defy the odds to breed healthy, sound, and highly talented foals. And certainly, from the evidence of paper and pedigree, the athletic ability of some of the resulting foals could not be easily predicted.

For instance, two of the glowing racers who are set to enter the Kentucky Derby suggest some of the unknowns in breeding and developing classic prospects. These are the probable favorite California Chrome and the notably accomplished Wildcat Red, who has never been out of the first two in his seven-race career.

If the Kentucky Derby were determined by showhorse good looks, the rest of the field might as well go home because California Chrome is shiny as a new penny. His racing record is almost as glittering as his chestnut coat, with six victories in 10 starts, and he has been the star of the California classic prospects in 2014.

California Chrome’s final prep for the Derby was the G1 Santa Anita Derby, and the flashy chestnut bounded away from his competition through the stretch to win impressively. His dominance in that race emphasized something shocking to pedigree page readers: he is hands down the best horse in this female line for generations.

The colt’s first two dams are actually quite commonplace in their lack of racing success. Love the Chase and her dam each won a single race, and their earnings total slightly less than $20,000, when combined together.

The third dam of the likely Derby favorite was a pretty good racehorse, however. She was the stakes winner Chase the Dream, a daughter of English Derby winner Sir Ivor. She was a pretty nice filly, with a pair of victories in stakes and a half-dozen second or third placings among stakes company.

More importantly, the sire of California Chrome is Lucky Pulpit, a son of Pulpit. That son of A.P. Indy has proven his sire’s most important representative for speed and for classic quality, and another son of Pulpit, the eminent sire Tapit, has been the headline sire along the trail to the Kentucky Derby this season, with numerous sons winning or placing in trials.

Some of Tapit’s best, such as Florida Derby winner Constitution and Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend, however, are on the sidelines for the classic in Louisville. One of the horses who ran well with Constitution, however, may prove an important player in the classic.

Wildcat Red was second by a hard-fought neck to Constitution in the G1 Florida Derby and has never been worse than second to date. With earnings of $690,850, Wildcat Red has earned more than 20 times his purchase price at last year’s OBS June sale, when he went through the ring for $30,000.

Selected out of that sale by trainer Jose Garoffalo, Wildcat Red had a very good breeze, going a furlong in :10 2/5 on the first day of breeze trials. The heavy-muscled colt showed a longer-than-average stride length and hit every mark to showcase an excellent BreezeFig of 67 for the sale. When I looked at the colt last June, he was already over 16 hands. He had a typical head for a D’Wildcat and had a great hindquarter and walk through his hindleg.

Perhaps buyers had seen a few too many sons of D’Wildcat who showed muscle and speed but not perseverance because the market missed this one. Wildcat Red is the sixth foal of his dam, who has had winners but nothing approaching the class of this uncommonly courageous battler. Wildcat Red clearly hates to allow another horse past him, yielding little. As a result, he has won the G2 Fountain of Youth and G3 Hutcheson Stakes, with a placing at the G1 level.

Neither of these colts would have made a select sale. Neither would qualify as “well bred.” But it does not matter. This is Kentucky Derby week, and athleticism, determination, constitution, and heart have brought this pair to a pinnacle of achievement in their young lives.

*The preceding post was first published earlier this week at Paulick Report.

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