Making the Grade: Derby Winner California Chrome


California Chrome draped in roses in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2014 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs. 

The 5-to-2 Kentucky Derby favorite, California Chrome looked like the winner by the time the field raced from the backstretch into the final turn in the 1 ¼-mile first jewel of the Triple Crown. Like many fans, analysts and handicappers, I thought the only way this talented California-bred could lose would be if he got off to a poor start. When he and Victor Espinoza scooted out of the maelstrom that is the cavalry charge into the first turn of the Kentucky Derby and into ideal tracking position, the best horse in the race was perfectly positioned to etch his name in racing’s history books. California Chrome’s 1 3/4-length Derby win is sure to ignite plenty of buzz about a possible Triple Crown bid and he probably will be at least as big a favorite for the Preakness on May 17 as 2013 Derby winner Orb was a year ago (7-to-10).

Note: The original Making the Grade on California Chrome ran in March after he won the San Felipe Stakes. Some of the information in the segments on his connections and pedigree was taken from that post.

California Chrome

Chestnut Colt

Sire (Father): Lucky Pulpit

Dam (Mother): Love the Chase, by Not For Love

Owners-Breeders: Steve Coburn and Martin Perry (Calif.)

Trainer: Art Sherman

Ability: California Chrome showed plenty of promise at two, winning a stakes race at Del Mar in July, and he cemented his credentials as a legitimate Kentucky Derby favorite by winning his four most recent starts leading into the first jewel of the Triple Crown by a combined margin of 24 ¼ lengths. There was nothing fluky about his four straight stakes wins, including a dominant 5 ¼-length romp over Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

The one big question California Chrome still needed to answer in Louisville on May 3 was whether he could win outside of California. Most believed the Lucky Pulpit colt could and would be up to that challenge – he was sent off as the heavy favorite in a 19-horse field – and he delivered in the Derby with yet another convincing win. The 1 ¾-length margin of victory probably could have been larger but jockey Victor Espinoza did not need to empty California Chrome’s tank after opening up a 5-length advantage in early stretch. The 107 Equibase Speed Figure California Chrome earned was right in line with the 109 he earned for his Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes win in March and the 106 he posted when winning the Santa Anita Derby.

From a handicapping standpoint, that should make another big performance on just two weeks rest more likely than had California Chrome posted a career-best speed figure with a significant jump that could have left him vulnerable to regression. He was so much better than the competition that California Chrome really didn’t need to run his best race to win the Kentucky Derby. That’s pretty scary.

It would take an incredible effort by one of his peers to defeat him in the Preakness — a jump up in performance to a level that we have not yet seen from anyone in this 3-year-old division. California Chrome will be the heavy favorite for the Preakness, a race that should set up very well for him. Cutting back in distance to 1 3/16 miles on a racetrack that traditionally plays nicely to horses with high cruising speed and has a shorter stretch than Churchill, California Chrome could very well win the Preakness even more easily than he did the Derby.

Should he win the Preakness, the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes would stand between California Chrome and a spot alongside 11 previous Triple Crown winners. The added distance is a major obstacle for all Derby-Preakness winners — we’ve seen quite a few outstanding dual classic winners get caught in the closing strides of the Belmont. But one aspect of winning the Triple Crown that might be an even bigger obstacle is the different surfaces when moving from Churchill Downs to Pimlico Race Course to Belmont Park. Belmont is called “Big Sandy” and the dirt main track is very different from both Churchill and Pimlico. You need a versatile 3-year-old with some gas left in the tank plus a ton of talent to win the Triple Crown. For now, let’s let California Chrome get past the Preakness before we start evaluating his Triple Crown chances.

Running style: California Chrome has a number of physical and mental assets that are extremely valuable to a racehorse. He is very responsive to jockey instructions and incredibly mature for a 3-year-old, but I’d argue that his best trait is his high cruising speed. His raw speed allowed him to get into ideal position in the Kentucky Derby so that he could make his winning move entering the stretch. A poor start or significant traffic trouble could have crushed California Chrome’s Derby chances, but fortunately the colt’s speed allowed jockey Victor Espinoza a couple of options once he was able to emerge from the thundering herd of horse hooves that is 19 horses breaking from a starting gate with $2-million on the line.


“I wanted to get out running out of the gate basically. I see myself a little bit in front. For a second, I almost just make that decision just to let [California Chrome] go in the front,” Espinoza said. “I saw one horse inside of me, the other one outside of me. They were trying to take the lead. At that point, I make a decision just to ease back a little bit, sit right there in like third [passing the finish line for the first time]. Then I see everybody was coming.”

For a few, frightening moments, Espinoza though he had made a mistake and allowed California Chrome to become trapped inside of other contenders. But his mount’s speed allowed Espinoza to maneuver him into clear running room on the backstretch and from that point on it was California Chrome’s race to lose.

“This horse has so much talent. I mean, by the three-eighths pole, he was going so strong,” Espinoza said. “I could see the other horses struggle a little bit. Him, it was just like smooth. Turning for home, I let it go, that was it.”

With fewer horses to contend with in the Preakness, a similar trip could be in the cards for California Chrome.

To read a compilation of Art Sherman’s Kentucky Derby diaries, click here.

Connections: Trainer Art Sherman referred to the connections of California Chrome as a “mom-and-pop” operation in March, but there is no shortage of experience on this team. Sherman has trained the winners of more than 2,100 races, including Grade 1 winners Ultra Blend, Haimish Hy, Land Field and Siren Lure. Sherman can now add Kentucky Derby-winning trainer to his résumé.

Sherman took out his trainer’s license in 1979 after a career as a jockey from 1958 through 1978. Sherman accompanied Hall of Famer Swaps for his 1955 Kentucky Derby victory as a stable boy for trainer Mesh Tenney.

To read more about Swaps, click here.

After the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Sherman was asked how the classic win had changed his life. He reflected upon all of the friendships he had made throughout the years in the business, specifically the ones who already had passed away and were not there to share the moment with him.

Previous Making the Grades 

Dance With Fate
Wicked Strong
Ring Weekend
California Chrome
Wildcat Red
Intense Holiday
Candy Boy (Tambien en Espanol)
Cairo Prince
Vicar's In Trouble
Midnight Hawk
Noble Moon
Rise Up
Shared Belief
New Year's Day
Bond Holder
Strong Mandate
We Miss Artie
Honor Code

“I think they’re watching over me right now saying, ‘hey, we all wish you the best of luck. We didn’t last this long to be with you,’ ” Sherman said.  “I’m so thankful that I'm here. I don't think I change much anymore. I have a lot of friends on the racetrack, been around a long time … I’m just the same old Art Sherman, you know, except I won the Kentucky Derby.”

Jockey Victor Espinoza also provides a wealth of experience to the team as a winner of more than 3,000 career races and now a two-time Kentucky Derby victor. He enjoyed success on the Triple Crown trail in 2002 with War Emblem, whom he guided to victories in the Derby and Preakness.

California Chrome is a homebred of Nevada-based Steve Coburn and California-based Perry Martin. California Chrome is the first horse the partners ever bred out of a mare they purchased for $8,000 and bred to a sire that stood for $2,000. Coburn and Martin turned down a reported $6-million for a 51-percent interest in California Chrome after the San Felipe. They call themselves DAP (Dumb Ass Partners) and the back of their silks is appropriately emblazoned with an image of a donkey.

“You know, it's an incredible, incredible journey we've been on,” Coburn said. “To see this baby the day after he was born alive, then I saw him three weeks prior to that in a dream, and this baby turned out exactly like my dream.

“To watch this colt come up, to come up and develop the mind that he has and run, just run because he loves to run; he loves the competition, he loves to run.

“To see all this happen for my partner, Perry Martin, our wives, our families, to see this dream come true that we have put so much blood, sweat and tears, our savings, our retirement into this horse, and see this horse win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words.”

Pedigree: California Chrome’s sire (father), Lucky Pulpit, finished second in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes to earn a starting spot in the San Rafael Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, but he was unplaced in both of those races and eventually proved better-suited to sprinting. He won the 5-furlong Smile Stakes on the grass at Arlinton Park and also placed in several other turf sprints, but he was not purely a sprinter. He placed in three stakes going a mile on the turf, including a nose defeat as a 2-year-old in the Pinjara Stakes at Santa Anita Park. He has quickly carved out a nice niche for himself as a California sire with four crops ages three and older. His best runner before California Chrome was Rousing Sermon, a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles who finished third in the 2012 Louisiana Derby and eighth in that year’s Kentucky Derby. Of course, he received the ultimate update to his sire record on May 3 when California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome’s dam (mother), Love the Chase, earned her only career win going a mile on the main track. California Chrome is her first foal. His second dam (maternal grandmother), Chase It Down, by Polish Numbers, won one of nine starts with the victory coming at 6 ½ furlongs. California Chrome is the only runner in the first two generations to have any success in stakes races.

There is some back class in this female family. California Chrome’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Chase the Dream, won a pair of stakes at a mile or longer and produced a stakes winner. Cascapedia, 1977 champion older female, also is a member of this family.

Stamina was always my concern with California Chrome, but talent can carry a 3-year-old a long way and it carried California Chrome all the way to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.

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