Star is Born: California Chrome Dazzles in Derby

Racing

California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs to make his trainer, Art Sherman, the oldest winner ever of the first jewel of the Triple Crown at 77 years old. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Art Sherman visited the grave of Swaps the other day at Churchill Downs, he stopped to say a prayer.

Sherman was 18 years old when he accompanied Swaps on a 4-day journey by rail from California to win the Kentucky Derby in 1955. Now, no longer a teen but a man in the twilight of his life, Sherman turned to the heavens to ask that California Chrome might be another Swaps.

His prayer was answered when the favored California Chrome, under a perfect ride from Victor Espinoza, drew clear by 1 1/4 lengths against longshot runner-up Commanding Curve on Saturday as the roar of the Churchill Downs crowd intensified with his ever-magnificent stride.

“He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life,” said Sherman, who became the oldest trainer to win the Derby at 77.

Owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin purchased California Chrome’s dam, Love the Chase, by Not For Love, for a mere $8,000. They refused a $6-million offer for 51-percent of the horse when California Chrome came to prominence. 

Their courage is matched only by that of Chrome, who will go on to the Preakness Stakes on May 17 with high hopes for a Triple Crown bid. He will ride into Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore with a 5-race winning streak achieved by a combined margin of 26 lengths.

He is the first California-bred to bring home the roses since Decidedly in 1962. Sherman eclipsed the famed Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 when Sunday Silence provided him with the second of his Derby victories in 1989.

Espinoza broke from post-position five when War Emblem went wire-to-wire in 2002. He again left from post five with Chrome, but wisely kept him in third, an ideal stalking position. The colt made a bold move around the final turn and spurted clear as he entered the long stretch run, the roar of the crowd all but propelling the heavy favorite.

Sherman, a former jockey, said he felt as if he was pushing on the horse’s neck as the finish line neared and a Derby dream came true for the second time.

“I was riding him the last 70 yards with Victor and he was riding him, too,” Sherman said. “He had a lot of weight on him, I will tell you that.”

CALIFORNIA CHROME WAS DOMINANT IN THE DERBY

Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Chrome seems able to withstand almost anything these days. He is unbeaten since Espinoza hopped aboard five races ago. Espinoza cannot believe his good fortune.

“I never felt in my dreams that I would win two Kentucky Derbys in my entire career,” he said. “I was a young guy and never knew I was going to be a jockey. And look at me now.”

Commanding Curve, 18th in the early stages, launched a powerful rally for second for trainer Dallas Stewart but never posed a serious threat to the victor for the lion’s share of the $2-million purse. Arkansas Derby winner Danza, one of four starters from the powerhouse stable of Todd Pletcher, came on for third.

CALIFORNIA CHROME SLIDESHOW

The stakes races that highlighted the undercard, in the order in which they were run:

Distaff Turf Mile (G2): Coffee Clique, a 4-year-old daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, won for the second time in as many starts this year when she surged through an opening along the hedge to top Dame Marie by one-half length. “This spring, she has really come to herself,” said trainer Brian Lynch, adding that a summer campaign in Canada is planned.

Humana Distaff (G1): Midnight Lucky, making her first start in more than 11 months, never looked back in blazing to a 4 ½-length rout. “I was always comfortable,” said jockey Rosie Napravnik. “Coming off a year’s layoff, she’s just as good as she was.”

The American Turf (G2): Global View and Gary Stevens overtook Storming Inti in the final strides to eke out a neck victory against Storming Inti. “He’s got a powerful, powerful kick,” said Stevens. “I think he’s going to be a top, top turf horse. I’m talking Grade 1.”

The Churchill Downs (G2): Central Banker snapped a five-race losing streak in impressive fashion, outdueling Shakin It Up by a head in a dramatic stretch duel. He had not won since taking the Quick Call last July 25 at Saratoga Race Course.

Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1): Wise Dan displayed the muscle, the heart and the courage that made him two-time defending Horse of the Year when he edged Seek Again by a valiant head in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.

Wise Dan withstood some early bumping and an intense stretch duel with Seek Again to win for the 12th time in his last 13 starts. The triumphant 7-year-old gelding was ridden by John Velazquez. He took his second race in as many starts this year, paying $3 for a $2 win wager.

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