Derby Dreamin’: California Chrome

There have been some nice performances on the Derby trail this year, but it’s been difficult to find a standout among this crop of 3-year-olds. That changed yesterday when California Chrome came rolling through the stretch at Santa Anita to cement his status as the one to watch in the next month leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

In a sport that is oftentimes dominated at the top levels by blueblood talent and deep pockets, California Chrome is an anomaly. A California-bred, he represents a pedigree far from the best racehorses to hit the track, who usually end up holding court in Kentucky when they are retired to stud. His owners are blue-collar, and their partnership (as well as the meaning behind their DAP racing stable name) is explained further in this wonderful LA Times article.

Then there is 77-year old Art Sherman, the horse’s trainer. Now stabled at Los Alamitos after the closure of Hollywood Park, California Chrome trains on a track more known for it’s quarter horse racing than producing a classic contender in the thoroughbred ranks. Sherman made it to the Derby once before, as the exercise rider for the great Cal-bred Swaps in 1955.

So here was California Chrome, already guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with 50 points from winning the San Felipe Stakes in scintillating style last month. Though having passed the open company test in that race, the Santa Anita Derby would be a stiffer test with both the Robert B. Lewis winner Candy Boy, and the Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity, entered.

The flashy chestnut colt, named for his four white socks and white face, which horsemen refer to as “chrome,” rated nicely behind Dublin Up in the early stages of the race. As they approached the far turn, California Chrome ranged up on the frontrunner’s outside, with Candy Boy to his outside and Hoppertunity looking for room near the rail. It appeared as though the three big horses would duel it out in the stretch, but California Chrome suddenly opened up on them, swapping leads and pulling away easily. Hoppertunity closed gamely to put in a nice effort for second, but at that point California Chrome was already gone. As they hit the final sixteenth, jockey Victor Espinoza wrapped up on the colt and cruised home in a gallop.

Near the winners’ circle, owner Steve Coburn, who was wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, gave California Chrome a big kiss on the nose. As we stood waiting for the horse to come into the enclosure, the woman next to me was weeping tears of joy, saying that this horse could really be a figurehead for California racing, that “maybe this will make the [East coasters] take us seriously.” It’s obvious by the roar of the crowd and the number of photo-ruining fists pumping the air that California Chrome is definitely the hometown favorite.

Sometimes sports is greater than the act of competition, and you root for the good story. California Chrome is the good story this year, the throwback trainer with his first big horse at age 77, the blue-collar owners and a chestnut Cal-bred with connections to Swaps who is outrunning his humble origins. In fact, if California Chrome does wear the roses on the first Saturday in May, he’ll be only the fourth Cal-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, and the first since Decidedly in 1962. He’s proof of the old adage that “a good horse can come from anywhere.”


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