11/29/2014 8:32PM

California Chrome scores emphatic win in Hollywood Derby

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Emily Shields
California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza pull away to win the Hollywood Derby by two lengths Saturday.

DEL MAR, Calif. – It looks like the grass is greener on the other side for California Chrome.

In his first start on turf, California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, added a fourth Grade 1 win to his gaudy 2014 ledger with an emphatic victory Saturday in the $300,250 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar.

The win was a popular one, for California Chrome ($3.40) was the heavy favorite against five rivals and lured the biggest crowd of the season, estimated by Del Mar officials at 21,000. He received a rousing cheer as he crossed under the wire and a bigger one when he returned to the winner’s circle.

California Chrome beat the filly Lexie Lou, the Queen’s Plate winner, by two lengths, with Talco another length back in third. Sawyer’s Hill, Cabral, and Flamboyant completed the order of finish.

California Chrome completed 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in 1:47.88.

It took less time than that for the debates to begin anew over California Chrome’s chances at claiming the male 3-year-old title and Horse of the Year. His four Grade 1 wins are as many as the older horse Main Sequence, the Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, but he’s the only top contender with Grade 1 wins on both dirt and turf. His other Grade 1 win this year was the Santa Anita Derby.

Unlike Bayern, 3, the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, California Chrome did not win a race against older horses. He was a close third in the Classic.

“I know I’m biased, but I think he deserves it,” said his trainer, Art Sherman, who was proven correct in his long-held belief that California Chrome would take to the turf.

California Chrome, starting from post 5 in the six-horse field, popped the gate and led the field for the first furlong until being overtaken by the expected pacesetter, Sawyer’s Hill, heading into the first turn. From that point on, he was in an ideal spot under jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode a flawless race.

“I knew he’d be sharp leaving the gate,” Sherman said. “When he broke really sharp, I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”

As the field neared the far turn, the back markers began to close, and Espinoza, sitting in second place on California Chrome, set out after Sawyer’s Hill. They overtook him, opened a commanding lead entering the lane, and never were threatened the length of the stretch.

“That kick at the end, that acceleration. It was just like when he won the Derby,” Espinoza said, referring to the Kentucky Derby. “When we got to the far turn, he was ready to roll. Oh, he was ready to roll. He just turned it on, and I knew we were home.”

Sherman had said for months that he thought California Chrome would like the turf, but his schedule earlier this year precluded him from trying it until now. Sherman originally had planned to give California Chrome the rest of the year off after the Breeders’ Cup, but as good trainers do, he adjusted when he saw how his horse was acting.

“He came out of that race like a tiger,” Sherman said.

After working California Chrome on turf last Sunday and galloping him on it Thursday, California Chrome was set to go.

“I’m happy for the fans,” said Sherman. “It makes me feel real good knowing he can run on the grass.”

The win was the ninth in 16 starts for California Chrome, a California-bred colt by Lucky Pulpit owned by his breeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn. He has earned more than $4.2 million.

Sherman said California Chrome will not race again until next year, but he will remain at Los Alamitos, his base, until his next start at Santa Anita this winter. The whole wide world awaits in 2015, depending on what Sherman, Martin, and Coburn want to do.

“We’ve got a lot of options now,” Sherman said, citing the Dubai World Cup, even Royal Ascot, as possibilities for the first half of the year.

That will wait until another day. For now, though, California Chrome is back. This was his first win since the Preakness. He had lost three straight.

Last Saturday, Sherman’s son and top assistant, Alan, was rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be bronchitis and asthma.

Alan Sherman was right beside California Chrome on Saturday, though, as he had been all spring. He pumped his fist with emotion when California Chrome came back to the winner’s circle following the race. Asked if he was feeling better, Alan Sherman replied, “I am now.”