Four horses with North County connections to compete in 2014 Kentucky Derby

By Kelley Carlson

Kentucky Derby dreams are about to become a reality for several local residents, which includes the former exercise rider of a legendary horse and the president of an equine rescue organization.

It’s not easy to earn a berth in the starting gate for the world’s most famous horse race, run on the first Saturday in May each year in Louisville, Ky. The 1 1/4-mile Derby, held at Churchill Downs, is restricted to 3-year-old thoroughbreds, giving them only one shot to win one of the sport’s most prestigious events.

To get there, they compete in a 34-race series that awards points to the top four finishers in each event, and the top 20 point earners earn a spot in “the Run for the Roses.” That’s a very small percentage of the approximately 25,500 thoroughbreds born in North America in 2011.

Of the runners who have qualified for this year’s Kentucky Derby, four have connections in the North County area, including the likely favorite.

California Chrome

The copper-colored California Chrome is the probable choice in this year’s Derby. The colt enters on a four-race win streak, which began with a victory in the final stakes race ever held at Betfair Hollywood Park — the King Glorious Stakes — as a 2-year-old. California Chrome has since reeled off victories in the California Cup Derby, the San Felipe Stakes (Grade II) and the West Coast’s premier race for 3-year-olds, the Santa Anita Derby (Grade I), all at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. His combined total margin of victory for those races was more than 25 lengths.

California Chrome is trained by Rancho Bernardo resident Art Sherman, who until this year was probably best known as the exercise rider of Swaps. Nicknamed “the California Comet,” Swaps won the 1955 Kentucky Derby, was named Horse of the Year in 1956, and at one time held five world records.

“He’s (California Chrome) my Swaps, let’s put it that way,” Sherman said in a news release.

And California Chrome is also taking his owners on quite a ride — he is the first racehorse campaigned by Steve and Carolyn Coburn and Perry and Denise Martin.

“When these guys (Coburn and Martin) first sent me the horse, they said ‘Here’s your Derby horse,’ ” Sherman said. “He’s always been a great-looking horse, but it really seemed like the ‘light bulb’ went on for him in the Cal Cup (Derby, which he won by 5-and-a-half lengths on Jan. 25). He’s much more focused now and he loves to train. It’s pretty exciting.”

California Chrome is expected to be ridden in the Kentucky Derby by Victor Espinoza, who won the race aboard War Emblem in 2002.

Dance With Fate

Another owner with a first-time Derby starter is Bran Jam Stable. The family partnership includes Michael Mellen, who has a home in Rancho Santa Fe, and his daughter, Dawn Mellen, who is president of After the Finish Line, a nonprofit that helps save, rehabilitate and retrain former racehorses for a second career off the track. Bran Jam co-owns Dance With Fate with Sharon Alesia and Ciaglia Racing.

Although he had placed in major stakes races as a 2-year-old, the dark bay colt recently emerged onto the Derby picture with a victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (Grade I) at Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Ky., on April 12.

“To get to this point ... it’s beyond exciting for him (my dad) and everybody,” Dawn Mellen said.

“I’m proud of him (Dance With Fate) just getting to this point.”

After the Blue Grass, trainer Peter Eurton had expressed some concern about running the horse back in three weeks and on dirt, a surface over which Dance With Fate is 0-for-2. (The Blue Grass was run on a synthetic track.)

However, Mellen noted that Dance With Fate has raced on several different surfaces, including Santa Anita’s dirt track, and has actually performed well, with a runner-up effort in the FrontRunner Stakes (Grade I) last year. After the Blue Grass, he came back “perfect” and was checked by a vet.

“He has been telling us that he is OK to race again,” Mellen said. “We’re listening to him.”

Corey Nakatani, who was on Dance With Fate in the Blue Grass, will ride him in the Kentucky Derby.

“We want a safe race for all the horses and all the jockeys,” Mellen said. “That’s very important to us, as well. We’ll be cheering on (Dance With Fate) – I think the people in California will be hearing us.”

Until this year, the closest Bran Jam had gotten to Churchill Downs on Derby weekend was with the graded stakes winner Weemissfrankie, but an injury kept her from competing in the Kentucky Oaks, the fillies’ equivalent of the Derby.

Hoppertunity

Part-time Del Mar resident Mike Pegram is looking for a “Hoppertunity” to add to his Kentucky Derby trophy collection.

Having won the race in 1998 with Real Quiet, he is hoping again for the sweet smell of Derby success as co-owner of Hoppertunity, whose prep races included the Risen Star Stakes (Grade II) at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana, in which he was fourth; the Rebel Stakes (Grade I) at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, which he won; and a runner-up effort in the Santa Anita Derby behind California Chrome.

“I was happy with the way he ran (in the Santa Anita Derby) and he finished well,” trainer Bob Baffert said in a news release. “I didn’t think he was going to beat California Chrome, but he ran a good, solid race.

“He (Hoppertunity) is a laid-back horse and he is not going to wow you. He is just a steady horse and he moves well over the track. We know he can run.”

However, some people have questioned the fact that the bay colt did not start last year, as no horse has won the Derby without having raced at age 2 since Apollo in 1882.

“Hey, I had him entered in a race at 2 and scratched him because I had another one there,” Baffert said in a news release. “He was ready to run, so that should count.”

Pegram owns Hoppertunity in partnership with his lifelong friends Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, and together, they have found success with champions such as Midnight Lute and Lookin At Lucky. Jockey Mike Smith – who piloted Giacomo to a Derby win in 2005 — has the mount on Hoppertunity on Saturday.

Danza

The Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners group – which has an office in Del Mar – will be represented by Danza, who recently punched his ticket to Kentucky with a surprise victory in the Arkansas Derby (Grade I) at Oaklawn Park. Sent to the post at odds of 41-1, he defeated a field that had included several well-regarded horses by 4 3/4 lengths.

The chestnut colt is lightly raced, having competed only one other time this year (an allowance at Gulfstream Park in Florida on March 1) and a total of four career starts.

However, he has experienced trainer Todd Pletcher on his side. Pletcher has sent out the second-most Derby starters of any trainer in history, with one Derby win: Super Saver, in 2010. He has been quoted as saying that it feels like Danza is peaking at the right time.

Joe Bravo is slated to ride Danza in the Run for the Roses.

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