This is the race that introduced a feisty, charismatic colt named California Chrome to the world back in 2014. And while Chrome is the only winner of the California Cup Derby to also win the Kentucky Derby, Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita Park does give you a glimpse of what kind of 3-year-old talent is out there for the astute and contrarian bettor.

Club Aspen, California Cup Derby favorite
Three-year-old Club Aspen is the favorite for Saturday’s Cal Cup Derby. (Image: Santa Anita Park)

The race, one of five stakes races on Saturday’s Sunshine Millions card from Santa Anita, is limited to California-bred horses only, which is why you don’t see many of them pop up on your Kentucky Derby futures radar. In 2014, Chrome became only the fourth Cal-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, and the first Golden State product in 52 years to find the Churchill Downs winner’s circle.

That said, there are some good 3-year-olds to keep an eye on, and a wallet open for, starting with Club Aspen, a stalker trained by Craig Lewis. The leading money winner in the field ($118,211) and product of the red-hot sire, Clubhouse Ride, Club Aspen comes off a stellar victory in the Dec. 15 King Glorious Stakes at Los Alamitos, winning the mile race at 8-1.

Surface Tension

Club Aspen has two victories in seven starts, breaking his maiden at Del Mar Aug. 2, but it will be seen if he can handle the Santa Anita dirt better than he did the last time out, when he was seventh in a six-furlong sprint.

“I think it was his best race,” Lewis told the Daily Racing Form about the King Glorious. “I think he’s coming around. I think he really liked that surface. The issue is whether he can transfer that form to Santa Anita, which is a completely different surface.”

While Club Aspen figures out how broadly his skills can stretch, keep an eye on Bettor Trip Nick. The Golden Gate Fields gelding romped gate-to-wire in capturing the one-mile Gold Rush Stakes at 4-5 on Dec. 7, his fourth victory in five starts. This completed a nice double for the William Delia-trained horse; he won the six-furlong Golden Nugget Stakes two starts earlier with a career-best 93 Beyer Speed Figure. With regular jockey Catalino Martinez aboard, Bettor Trip Nick will be going two turns for the second time.

Two Others to Watch at Cal Cup Derby

It would be a big oversight to look past Rookie Mistake and Big Returns. Both Doug O’Neill products bring plenty to the gate, starting with the fact both are coming off victories. Big Returns came via disqualification at the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar Aug. 2. He will start on the outside in Post 9.

Fresh off a 3 ¾-length victory romp on turf at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, Rookie Mistake ran a solid second over 5 ½ furlongs on dirt at Del Mar on Dec. 1. He’s hit the board three times (4-1-1-1) in four lifetime races, but his already-displayed speed will be tested going two turns.