LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After 36 years, it may be time to dust off that Triple Crown trophy for a horse that cost less than a year of college tuition.
Late Saturday afternoon under the Twin Spires, California Chrome ($7) showed a national television audience, and the second-largest Kentucky Derby crowd in history, why he dominated the Southern California prep circuit prior to coming to Louisville.
The California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit didn’t need any racing luck to win the 140th edition of the Kentucky Derby for owners Steven Coburn and Perry Martin, who also bred the winner. California Chrome is the product of an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stallion, making him one of the biggest bargains thoroughbred racing has ever seen. He earned $1,442,800 for the victory, increasing his career earnings to $2,577,650.
The race set up perfectly for the Art Sherman-trained colt after some tense early moments before 164,906 at Churchill Downs.
Jockey Victor Espinoza was able to maneuver out of any potential early trouble and took advantage of the moderate fractions set up by the New York-bred Uncle Sigh, to win his second career ride in the Run for the Roses. Espinoza won the 2002 Derby on War Emblem from the same No. 5 post.
With the first half mile only going in 47.37 second, Espinoza sat just off the pace setters and was able to save ground and make his move on the far turn taking over at the quarter pole, pulling away from the 18 other challengers. It was the best possible scenario for the horse with the best speed figures coming into the race. Not being challenged early, California Chrome cruised to a 1ß length victory, withstanding an impressive late rally by West Point Thoroughbreds’ long shot Commanding Curve.
Espinoza described the first run down the stretch that had a moment of distress. “At the start he wanted to go, but I made a decision to ease back just a little bit behind in third. For a few seconds I was a little concerned about getting trapped, but I slowly moved out and when I hit the first turn I could take a breath of relief,” said Espinoza.
Sherman, 77, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby with California Chrome. Charlie Whittingham was 76 when Sunday Silence won the 1989 Kentucky Derby.
“I said all right Victor you’re in a perfect spot, just cool it, wait and see what happens when you push the button. I was hoping he had something left in the tank. And boy he ran his eyeballs out,” said Sherman.
What’s really amazing about the winner is that his sire never won at a distance longer than 5½ furlongs and his dam never raced on dirt. He proved on the First Saturday in May that distance was not the issue most horseplayers thought it was and that bigger things are to come for the chestnut colt.
California Chrome’s co-owner Steven Coburn only has one goal in mind and it’s not just the Preakness.
“It’s an incredible journey that we’ve been on,” said Coburn. “I said this horse would win the Kentucky Derby and when this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown and I’ll tell everybody right here, right now.”
Commanding Curve’s late run was too little, too late for trainer Dallas Stewart. It was the second straight year that a Stewart-trained horse crashed the exacta with the last horse that qualified for the Derby. Commanding Curve duplicated last year’s effort by Golden Soul, finishing second at odds of 38 -1, completing a $2 exacta that paid a healthy $340.
Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan lamented that the race ended too soon for Commanding Curve. “I thought I had a shot at winning it down the lane, when I looked at how close the wire was I said to myself ‘Oh, man the wire is coming too soon’ you know,” said Bridgmohan.
Terry Finley, managing partner of West Point Thoroughbreds, is already looking forward to a rematch with California Chrome for his son of Master Command.
“We’ll be at the Preakness and we really want to get to the Belmont going a mile and a half on Big Sandy,” said Finley. “I’d love to have another shot at this horse; he’s a beautiful horse, the winner. I never like to knock any horse, and he ran a mile and a quarter faster than we did, but I loved the way we finished up. I hope I get to experience that last 100 yards again, that was the most incredible feeling,” he said.
Third-place finisher Danza, who looked terrific in training all week, had traffic troubles down the stretch and just couldn’t get his horse to the winner. Jersey Joe Bravo gave trainer Todd Pletcher credit for having Danza ready to roll. “Really nice the first turn, I had everything good, but turning for home I had to wheel out and go around horses, but he kept kicking and Todd knows how to get them to the big game,” said Bravo.
Pletcher, who is now 1-for-42 with Kentucky Derby starters was pleased with the showing by Danza. “I thought he ran well. Coming by the wire the first time, he got bumped by Vinceremos. But he got back in position and started to respond. Joe had to move him a little earlier than he wanted to. Considering that this was only the fifth race of his life, you’ve got to say it was a very good effort,” said Pletcher.
The final time of 2:03.66 for the mile and a quarter didn’t exactly scream Secretariat, but California Chrome took what was given to him by his rivals and he’ll be even more dangerous at Pimlico. The Preakness is run at 1 3/16 miles, one-sixteenth of a mile less than the Derby. He’ll also face some new shooters with fresh legs, one of the obstacles that stand in the way in the grueling Triple Crown series that has three legs in five weeks.
Sherman may be 77 years old, but he was enjoying the moment like a youngster and wants the journey to continue. “California Chrome is the rock star and I’m the manager and we’re going all the way,” said Sherman.
California Chrome would be the first California-bred to win the Triple Crown, if he can duplicate yesterday’s efforts at Pimlico and in early June at Belmont Park.
He’s proved to be the fastest 3-year-old to date. We’ll see in two weeks if history looms. And if you listen to his owner Steven Coburn, it’s time to break the dust rag out.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.