LOUISVILLE — The coronation of Orb didn't come until he crossed the Churchill Downs finish line 21/2 lengths in front in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. However, those who witnessed the 4-furlong clinic he unleashed the Monday before had a good idea what was going to happen five days later.
The final major move a Derby contender puts in may not be the be-all, end-all indicator of how a horse will handle the 10-furlong classic. But recent winners on the first Saturday in May have touted themselves in some way over the surface beneath the Twin Spires.
Next Saturday's 140th Kentucky Derby will test the strength of that theory as a handful of top contenders, including likely favorite California Chrome, are slated to have their last workouts at their respective bases before shipping to Louisville.
How a horse handles the Churchill Downs track is always a talking point and, in some cases, an excuse for connections of Kentucky Derby contenders. Of the last 13 Derby winners, only Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and I'll Have Another (2012) did not have their final works at Churchill though it bears noting that I'll Have Another's gallop the Sunday before qualified as a gauntlet being thrown.
Of the 36 starters six-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has saddled in the Derby, his lone winner, Super Saver in 2010, had perhaps the longest time to get acclimated to Churchill when he shipped in to Louisville shortly after running second in the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn.
"I think it maybe gives you that added confidence if you see it," Pletcher said of getting his horses time over the Churchill track. "But there are the Funny Cides and Giacomos that come in late and win the race. I don't know that you have to be here and breeze over the track to do well, but if you're training one of those and you see them go over there and do it, it kind of checks that worry off the box. A lot of horses don't like Churchill's surface so it's good to know the ones who do."
The Churchill track can be a different beast on Derby Day than even during the week, especially if rain hits as has become the norm in recent seasons.
Even if nothing can be done to force a runner to get a handle on the Churchill dirt, some horsemen like them to get accustomed to the circus-type surroundings in advance.
"I'm not sure getting a work is that big a deal but the whole Derby week experience is a big deal," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm which owned Super Saver and co-owns possible Derby entrant Vinceremos. "I think if you're there 2-3 weeks before, you get a chance to acclimate almost with the momentum of the week. Where as if you come in on top of it, there is a lot going on that could throw a horse off.
"There are things they're just not used to on a normal basis that to me would be the biggest concern."
In the cases of horses like California Chrome, Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend, and Grade I Blue Grass Stakes winner Dance With Fate this season, keeping them mentally happy and healthy in their own surroundings has outweighed prepping in what can be unpredictable weather in Kentucky.
At his base at Los Alamitos in California, Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome has his own private training window in the mornings where he has the track to himself.
While trainer Graham Motion sent 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom out for a 6-furlong breeze at Churchill that week that should have told everyone he would handle the dirt just fine, he has opted to keep Ring Weekend in the serenity of Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland this season and not ship in until early next week.
"For me, for my point of view, the most important thing was having him back home and he's done really well since being here," Motion said. "I breezed him at Calder (before his second-place finish in the Calder Derby) and it didn't seem to help him at all."
Added Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, "In case there is that chance of rain or off track or something, I didn't want him to take a chance of not having the right kind of surface to train on. I've been back there and I know what can happen. This way he's going to have a beautiful track there at Los Alamitos and it's his home ground. I'm not worried about his shipping."
On the right day with the right circumstances, the Churchill track can move a horse up. No matter if one ships in two weeks early or three days out, bringing the right horse into the Derby still trumps all.
"I think it's an individual thing. I think if you have a horse that is anxious and really needs to settle in, they're probably not a Derby horse in my mind," said Doug O'Neill, who trained I'll Have Another. "Whether you ship them out 10 days or two or four days out, I don't think it matters. I think it's more the makeup of the horse."