LOUISVILLE — In absence of an actual Commanding Curve victory, the final strides of the Kentucky Derby were about as satisfying as the West Point Thoroughbreds ownership group could have wished for once the gate sprung open.
When you have a 37-to-1 shot who needed defections just to get into the field, running second to the horse who now stands on the brink of a Triple Crown falls into the 'I'll take it' category for many.
Much as Jeff Lifson loves what Commanding Curve did in the final furlong of the 11/4-mile classic, it is an image he saw on the race replay that West Point's executive vice president savors. As the frame zeros in on California Chrome's victorious gallop out past the finish line, there was Commanding Curve photo-bombing by thrusting his bay frame right on by the now dual classic winner.
"I'm sorry the Derby winners don't have the lasting memory of the big hug shot and they go back to your horse galloping out because, well, he was blocked by this horse passing him," Lifson said after watching Commanding Curve train at Churchill Downs last Wednesday. "They don't have that DVR shot. I love that shot.
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"Every one of our clients probably has that on their DVR because the Derby is over with and you're seeing No. 17 and not No. 5."
If Commanding Curve successfully steals focus from California Chrome this coming Saturday, his image will dominate the media landscape for more than just a hot second. The bay ridgling and Kentucky Derby runner-up is among the dozen possible contenders looking to stymie California Chrome's Triple Crown sweep in the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
Despite California Chrome's dominance this season, those in Commanding Curve's camp aren't keeping their confidence level under wraps regarding their spoiler prospects.
Beginning with Commendable in 2000, there have been seven horses who have taken the final leg of the Triple Crown after running in the Kentucky Derby and skipping the Preakness. After Commanding Curve's rally from 18th to get within 13/4 lengths of California Chrome, the decision was made shortly thereafter to focus on the marathon Belmont Stakes.
"We weren't going to be Triple Crown winners," said Dallas Stewart, trainer of Commanding Curve. "But I tell you what, he came out of the Derby great. He's put on some muscle, I love his attitude, his energy, everything checks out good.
"I'm a fan of California Chrome, but we have a job to do: to go out and win the Belmont. And I think we have the right horse."
With just a maiden victory in seven career starts, Commanding Curve only gained outside attention Derby week when news came down that he would make it into the field due to fellow West Point-owned Ring Weekend being withdrawn after spiking a temperature the Sunday before.
That maiden win earned at Churchill Downs last Nov. 30 showcased the ability the son of Master Command will need to unearth again if he is to shock the racing world on June 7. Unlike his outings in the Kentucky Derby, Louisiana Derby (third) and the Risen Star Stakes (sixth), Commanding Curve was able to rate closer up in the early going en route to a 11/2-length victory.
Because the Belmont Stakes often favors horses with tactical ability rather than stone-cold closers, Commanding Curve's turn of foot may be called upon sooner in Saturday's test.
"When he broke his maiden last fall, I was there with some clients and I told them after the race this horse was really, really special because of the way he won," Lifson said. "I think the mentality of this horse that will help him on Belmont day is he does not like to be passed. But he needs a target, and I think he'll have one. There is this horse from California that is really, really good."
Commanding Curve's desire for a target is why Stewart worked him in company with Cost Effective from the barn of Tom Albertrani at Belmont on Sunday morning, covering 4 furlongs in 47.38.
"I've never seen him work any better," Stewart said afterward. "He came back not blowing. That's the thing about him: he never gets tired."
In the vein of his former boss, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Stewart hasn't backed off the stout drills heading into the Belmont. And he's one of the few who doesn't necessarily think California Chrome has to regress in order for an upset to emerge.
"I think that he could still run his race and get outrun," Stewart said of California Chrome. "I think there's a handful of horses that are definitely capable to beat him maybe even on his best day.
"You know, you can analyze the hell out of things. Just train your horse and go run them."