Before the Blue Grass Stakes today, even trainer Roger Laurin had to agree with the critics who said Chief's Crown wasn't an exciting champion. The colt didn't train fast, didn't run fast, didn't blow away his opposition. He had no panache, no charisma.
"It's becoming fashionable to say he's not brilliant," Laurin acknowledged.
Maybe Chief's Crown got tired of hearing these insults or, more likely, maybe the results of Laurin's patient, farsighted training regimen are just beginning to pay off. Today the colt silenced all the skeptics and the critics for good, with a smashing Blue Grass victory that ensures he will be a solid favorite in next week's Kentucky Derby.
Chief's Crown scored a 5 1/2-length win over Floating Reserve, with Banner Bob third and Under Orders last in the four-horse field. That he won hardly was surprising; he had no meaningful competition today. But the colt who never before had run fast covered the 1 1/8 miles in a dazzling 1:47 3/5, one-fifth of a second off Keeneland's track record.
The racing strip wasn't extraordinarily fast, and that time is the best barometer yet of Chief's Crown's ability. In the previous 60 runnings of the Blue Grass, only four horses had run in 1:47-plus: Arts and Letters, Forward Pass, Ridan and Round Table. All were outstanding horses who went on to finish in the money in the Kentucky Derby.
Chief's Crown came into the Blue Grass with credentials far superior to his three rivals and with a tactical advantage as well. Only one of the other horses, Banner Bob, had speed, but his jockey Keith Allen was determined not to use it.
"We knew we couldn't win on the lead," said Allen, who is not renowned as a master strategist.
Thus Chief's Crown and jockey Don MacBeth were permitted to control the race from start to finish. While Allen restrained Banner Bob, MacBeth urged Chief's Crown just enough to take a clear lead. He covered the first quarter in a leisurely 24 2/5 seconds and the half in 48 2/5, slower than the fractions for a maiden filly race earlier on the card.
Banner Bob tried to make a challenge on the backstretch, but Allen said, "Every time I went to him, he'd ease away from us. He's too much horse."
Chief's Crown did more than ease away. After reaching the six-furlong mark in a still-moderate 1:12, he accelerated powerfully on the turn, covering the mile in 1:35 4/5. He covered the final eighth of a mile in a phenomenal :11 4/5 that crushed his rivals and dampened the Derby hopes of just about everybody else who has a good 3-year-old.
The brilliance of Chief's Crown's performance was a sharp contrast to almost everything else he had done this season. Having won last year's 2-year-old championship, he started his campaign with a slow victory in an allowance race, then won the Flamingo Stakes in slow time when he was able to control the pace all the way.
His workouts before the Blue Grass weren't dazzling. But Laurin had been trying to bring the colt along slowly, so that he would reach peak condition on the first Saturday in May. Now that he has evidently succeeded, the whole complexion of the 111th Derby has changed.
Before today, every trainer of a fair-to-middling colt had reason to think he might get lucky in a Derby field that seemed very weak. Now those same trainers will have to confront the same reality that Banner Bob's trainer, J.J. Sarner, did today.
"I can't beat him," Sarner said. "The winner does what he has to do and that's it. I don't care who he's going to go against, he's going to whip them."