Louisville, KY -- They weren’t screaming “the king is here, the king is here” but the atmosphere at Churchill Downs changed Monday with the arrival of the Kentucky Derby favorite. California Chrome’s supporters are hoping to celebrate his coronation this Saturday.
The bright chestnut with a white blaze down the middle of his face represents something special, the type of horse that will immediately inspire dreams of an elusive Triple Crown winner if he proves successful at Churchill Downs. California Chrome has attracted a legion of fans due to his exploits on the track, winning the Santa Anita Derby most recently with stunning ease.
He still must avoid a dreaded inside post position at Wednesday’s 20-horse draw but California Chrome likely will stand alone as the prohibitive choice among betters, with the next favorite in the wagering still up for grabs between Hoppertunity, Wicked Strong or maybe a wildcard like Danza.
By typical standards, California Chrome arrived here late for his anticipated date with destiny. Most contenders were already settled into Churchill Downs last week, recording their final serious preparations over the track in recent days, but California Chrome’s connections eschewed the conventional path.
His last major workout came at his home base, Los Alamitos in Southern California, where Sherman relocated earlier this year following the closing of Hollywood Park. The 77-year-old conditioner is preparing his first Derby starter and felt comfortable remaining home for as long as possible, waiting until Monday morning for the ship to Louisville.
“It was a great work,” Sherman said after California Chrome completed a final half-mile drill on April 26. “He’s the kind of horse you dream about.”
Fans will have the opportunity to see the favorite receive some light training in the days ahead. California Chrome is scheduled to jog Tuesday morning under the Twin Spires and will gallop a couple of miles on Wednesday and Thursday.
California Chrome serves as a perfect example that a good horse can come from anywhere. He’s the result of a partnership between owners Perry Martin of Yuba City, California and Steve Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nevada, who joined together to breed a horse for the first time.
They bought his dam for $8,000, small change when compared to the cost of blue-blooded Thoroughbreds. But the mare wasn’t considered much by others and Coburn has explained that they were called “dumbasses” for doing so.
That was the genesis for “DAP Racing” (Dumb Ass Partners) under which California Chrome has been campaigned.
The owners paid $2,500 to breed the mare to the undistinguished stallion Lucky Pulpit, a stakes-winning turf sprinter who stands at Harris Farms near Colinga, California. By comparison, the top-priced stallion in this year’s Derby field, Tapit, costs $150,000 for a cover.
California Chrome was foaled in the Golden State on February 18, 2011.
Racing exclusively in California so far, he made three of his first four starts against state-bred rivals but attracted little attention for his early exploits. In fact, California Chrome recorded unplaced finishes in his first two stakes races against open company, including a sixth in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity last September. The under-the-radar colt didn’t start to find his best form until late in his two-year-old season.
Since emphatically snapping a two-race losing streak in the December 22 King Glorious at Hollywood Park, scoring by 6 ¼ lengths, California Chrome hasn’t come close to tasting defeat, reeling off four straight tour-de-force performances in advance of the Kentucky Derby.
He posted a handy 5 ½-length win in the January 25 California Cup Derby before dispatching graded stakes foes with similar ease, taking the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 8 by a widening 7 ¼-length margin. Next came the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, the most difficult prep race this year with Derby contenders Hoppertunity and Candy Boy also present, and California Chrome made short work of the deep field, rolling to a 5 ¼-length tally.
The latter two efforts arguably rate as head-and-shoulders above any other performance by a three-year-old this season.
California-bred horses are typically the subject of scorn from Kentucky Derby handicappers. Only three have captured the Run for the Roses in its 140-year history, the last coming 52 years ago via Decidedly, and pedigree snobs will point to his modest breeding if California Chrome falters.
And while experience can be hard to quantify, Sherman and his crew are first-timers readying a horse for the extreme demands of the Derby. And they are doing so in an unconventional manner. California Chrome’s home, Los Alamitos, is a former Quarter-Horse facility that was renovated last year to accommodate Thoroughbreds.
This isn’t one of the high-profile stables -- trainers Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Dale Romans & D. Wayne Lukas are all about the Kentucky Derby -- that we are so used to seeing in the build-up to the race and you can count on that being part of the discussion if California Chrome comes up short.
“If you've been around this horse, if you've been around horses in general, you know they all have their own personalities," Sherman said last weekend when asked how California Chrome will handle the new environment. "This horse just has a wonderful personality, an excellent demeanor. He's so easy-going, so laid back. Nothing seems to bother him.
"I guess there are things I should be concerned about given our situation, but one thing I'm not is how this horse is going to handle his trip down there. 'Chrome' will deal with it just fine. I'm not worried about that at all."
One valid concern involves the start -- California Chrome is a free-wheeling type who likes to race up close and probably needs to avoid breaking a step slowly like he did in the Santa Anita Derby – but most drawbacks surrounding the colt, including his ability at the 1 ¼-mile distance, are purely subjective.
California Chrome is fast, extremely fast. It’s his race to lose on Saturday.
Handicapping the race
Based on numbers and form lines, California Chrome is the cream of this year’s Derby field. His 106 BRIS Speed rating last time is clearly best but what really stands out is the instant acceleration he’s developed in recent months.
Most horses with speed will look to put away the competition early, allowing them to coast home in the latter stages, but jockey Victor Espinoza waited to ask California Chrome until the stretch drive of the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, opening up an insurmountable advantage in a matter of a few strides.
If Espinoza arrives at the head of the Churchill Downs stretch with plenty in reserve, the final furlongs should be fun to watch.
Thoroughbred racing is in the midst of a 36-year-old drought, with Affirmed being the last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes series in 1978, and it could really use a superstar to emerge.
California Chrome could be that horse, but he still has to prove it.