Kentucky Derby a Shining Moment for California Chrome

by | 05.03.2014 | 6:42pm
California Chrome wins Kentucky Derby 140

Getting a perfect trip under jockey Victor Espinoza, favored California-bred California Chrome came from just off the pace, then ran away with the 140th Kentucky Derby, beating longshot Commanding Curve by 1 3/4 lengths and giving owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin a storybook ending to the dreams they had four years ago when they bred Lucky Pulpit to Love the Chase, a mare they bought for $8,000. It was the first Kentucky Derby starter for 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who came to Churchill Downs in 1955 as the exercise rider for an earlier California-bred Derby winner, Swaps. Espinoza was winning for the second time, having previously taken the 2002 running with War Emblem.

Danza finished third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Commanding Curve, with second favorite Wicked Strong fourth and Samraat fifth in the field of 19 3-year-olds. Completing the order of finish was Dance with Fate, Ride On Curlin, Medal Count, Chitu, We Miss Artie, General a Rod, Intense Holiday, Candy Boy, Uncle Sigh, Tapiture, Harry's Holiday, Vinceremos, Wildcat Red, and Vicar's In Trouble. Hoppertunity was entered and scratched with a bruised foot. Pablo Del Monte was entered as an also-eligible but his connections declined to run after the spot opened following Hoppertunity's scratch.

Final time of the mile and a quarter race was 2:03.66 on a fast track.

Uncle Sigh, with blinkers added for the Derby, set the early fractions, going :23.04 for the opening quarter mile and :47.37 for the half. Chitu was his closest pursuer, with California Chrome racing comfortably in third and Samraat in fourth.

Uncle Sigh continued to show the way into the far turn, the six furlongs in 1:11.80, but California Chrome soon launched his bid and took command on the turn and in the stretch, the mile in 1:37.45. He won by open lengths for the fifth consecutive time and was geared down at the wire by Espinoza, a rare sight at the end of a Kentucky Derby.

Espinoza may have been thinking two weeks ahead to the Preakness Stakes, second leg of the Triple Crown, followed three weeks later by the Belmont Stakes. No horse has swept all three legs since Affirmed in 1978. Espinoza, who rode War Emblem to a Derby and Preakness win, only to have his Triple Crown hopes dashed when he stumbled badly at the start of the mile and a half Belmont, knows how hard this quest can be.

“I never felt in my dreams that I would win two Kentucky Derbies in my entire career,” Espinoza said after the win. “I was a young guy and I never knew I was going to be a jockey and look at me now. It is an awesome feeling.”

Sherman, who is now the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, said of California Chrome: “He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life.”

The Derby was not a trouble-free race. Danza got crowded and knocked sideways down the stretch the first time. Candy Boy got slammed and lost his action around the first turn. Intense Holiday was wide throughout. In the stretch Danza, looking for room, swung outside sharply, causing Wicked Storm to alter course as well.

But there was no beating California Chrome, trouble or not. He was clearly the best horse in the field, winning just as he had a month earlier in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, taking that nine-furlong contest by 5 1/4 lengths. He won the G2 San Felipe by 7 1/4 lengths in March and the California-bred restricted Cal Cup Derby by 5 1/2  in January. He finished his 2-year-old campaign with a 6 1/4-length win  in the restricted King Glorious Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park. He has now won seven of 11 career starts, his lone defeats coming in his career debut at Betfair Hollywood Park last April 26, when second; a fifth-place finish in the Willard Proctor Memorial Stakes at Hollywood in June; a troubled sixth in the G1 Del Mar Futurity, and a sixth in the Golden State Juvenile against Cal-breds.

The win in the King Glorious Stakes was on the final day of racing at Hollywood Park, which has been closed for a development project by its owners. One of the trademarks of the “track of lakes and flowers” is a statue of Swaps, perhaps the greatest Thoroughbred ever bred in the Golden State. A young Art Sherman was his exercise rider. On the eve of this Kentucky Derby, nearly six decades after Swaps won his Run for the Roses under Bill Shoemaker, beating a great horse in Nashua, Sherman was not quite ready to say California Chrome was in the same league as Swaps.

But that was before California Chrome toyed with this field. He is the fourth Cal-bred to win the Kentucky Derby and the first since Decidedly in 1962.

California Chrome is just the fourth stakes winner from five crops to race for his sire, Kentucky-bred Lucky Pulpit, a  son of the A.P. Indy stallion Pulpit. As a racehorse Lucky Pulpit was campaigned by owner-breeders Mr. and Mrs. Larry Williams over four seasons, winning 3 of 22 starts. He was trained early in his career by Clifford Sise, then by Grant Forster and finally by Todd Pletcher for his last two starts. His only stakes win came over five furlongs on turf in the Smile Stakes at Arlington Park. Lucky Pulpit, who stands at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., has a stud fee of $2,500. His 2011 crop that includes California Chrome had just 24 foals.

Love the Chase, a Maryland-bred by Not for Love, produced California Chrome. She raced for Blinkers On Racing Stable and trainer Greg Gilchrist for her first four starts, winning her fourth start, an $8,000 claiming race at Golden Gate Fields. After the win, Coburn and Martin, who were minority members of the partnership, bought out their partners and raced Love the Chase twice in their name, transferring her to trainer Monty Meier. She ran last both times and was retired. Meier recently remembered there was nothing remarkable about Love the Chase other than being a nervous filly who didn't have a lot of ability.

Love the Chase's dam, Chase It Down, was also bred in Maryland and also failed to excel, winning only a maiden special race at Charles Town in nine starts. Her dam, New York-bred Chase the Dream, by Sir Ivor, was a stakes winner for Eugene Klein and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who purchased her for $260,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling in 1985.

The purchase of Love the Chase by Coburn and Martin prompted someone to say only a “dumb ass” would buy a mare with such limited ability, so they named their racing and breeding business Dumb Ass Partners.

Bred for the first time in 2009 to Redattore, Love the Chase failed to get in foal, but her second mating a year later to Lucky Pulpit produced California Chrome. He's now won more than $2.3 million dollars, and Martin and Coburn turned down a $6 million offer for 51 percent ownership of the horse earlier this year.

This is the stuff dreams are made of, and co-owner Coburn said he dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby weeks before California Chrome was born. An $8,000 mare bred to a $2,500 stallion. It's what makes the Kentucky Derby so confounding and improbable to some and the most difficult race in America to win.

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