Is Smokey Image the next California Chrome and a Kentucky Derby Sleeper?

Smokey Image - ca cup derby#2

March 1st 2016

Sometimes as handicappers on the Kentucky Derby trail, we get caught up too much in pedigrees and horses in the barns of the top trainers. But as we have seen in the past with horses like Mine That Bird and Funny Cide, sometimes all that is necessary to win Kentucky Derby is having a great horse. And having a great jockey helps too.

So this leads me to the race career of Smokey Image, the Carla Gaines-trained 3 year-old colt who is undefeated in 6 starts. It is probably necessary to mention here that no woman trainer has ever won the Kentucky Derby…so we are told.  It is believed that Mrs. Laska Durnell–the owner of the 1904 Kentucky Derby winner and Missouri-foal Elwood–secretly employed the services of Elwood’s breeder Mrs. J. B. Prather to train him for the Derby. Why? Because her husband and trainer Charles Durnell didn’t think the horse had a chance but she entered him anyway without her husband’s knowledge.  So throw out the whole “No woman trainer…” argument.

Until Smokey Image’s win in the 1 1/16th mile California Cup Derby, he had plenty of skeptics (me included) because his undefeated record came in races at a sprinter distance of 7 furlongs or less. But after the Cal Cup Derby win, Smokey Image is on most handicappers radar and in their Top 10 Kentucky Derby contender lists. However, he is not in anyone’s top 3 and is not in mine currently though I had him as one of five horses to consider for your Kentucky Derby Pool #2 Future Wager.

The majority of Kentucky Derby handicappers have a combination of Mohaymen, Nyquist, Mor Spirit and Brody’s Cause at the top of their lists. Cal-bred horses don’t typically garner a ton of respect as Kentucky Derby contenders as only four horses born in California have ever won the Kentucky Derby: Morvich in 1922, Swaps in 1955, Decidedly in 1962 and California Chrome in 2014.

But California Chrome’s career should have erased some of doubts about Cal-breds. So the burning questions are: Is Smokey Image the next California Chrome in the making and should he be considered a more serious Kentucky Derby contender? Let’s review some relevant facts:

  1. His jockey is Victor Espinoza, who has won the last two Kentucky Derbys with California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015. He also won the 2002 Kentucky Derby on War Emblem.
  2. Smokey Image’s sire was Southern Image, who won the 2004 Santa Anita Handicap, same 1 1/4 mile distance as the Kentucky Derby.
  3. On his mother’s side, his damsire was Free House who gave Silver Charm a battle finishing 3rd in the 1997 Kentucky Derby then won the Pacific Classic and Santa Anita Handicap (both at 1 1/4 mile distances) the following year in 1998 as a 4 year old.

So Smokey Image has a great jockey who has proven that he can win the Kentucky Derby (and a Triple Crown) and a pedigree that suggests that he will like stretching out to the 1 1/4 mile distance.

Smokey Image–Another California Chrome?

Smokey Image is being pointed towards the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 12th. He is following a similar pathway as California Chrome did in 2014 when Chrome raced in the Golden State Juvenile race, the California Cup Derby and the San Felipe Stakes. Chrome finished 6th in the Golden State Juvenile, won the King Glorious Stakes and won the California Cup Derby. However, his win in the San Felipe Stakes is what shot him to the top of the Kentucky Derby contender lists and made him a favorite in the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool.

Smokey Image won the Golden State Juvenile by 3/4 ths of a length and then put on this impressive performance in the 2016 California Cup Derby (shown below). He is still a little green as he has an unusual gait going through turns but he smoked the field and won by a tractor-trailer length. And note that he had such a huge lead that the Victor Espinoza eased him up a bit before the finish line.

Smokey Image’s winning time of 1:43.49 was less than 3 tenths of a second off of California Chrome’s winning time of 1:43.22 in the 2014 Cal Cup Derby (shown below). Smokey Image’s time through one mile was 1:36.59 vs. California Chrome’s 1:36.73.

Have we seen this before? Or are we blinded by philosophical methodologies and myopias of ranking the Kentucky Derby contending elite?

All eyes will be on the upcoming and expected Smokey Image vs Mor Spirit duel at Santa Anita Park on March 12th. A win against Bob Baffert’s Mor Spirit in the San Felipe would rocket this horse up to the top of the Kentucky Derby contender charts. And perhaps, start a new Smokey Image craze. Irrespective of his Kentucky Derby chances, I see a big win in this horse’s future somewhere down the line if he stays healthy.