Updated on 05/09/2014 9:37AM

Kentucky Derby: California Chrome makes it look easy

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome wins the Kentucky Derby after pulling away from the field down the stretch.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Art Sherman first came to Churchill Downs in 1955 as a stablehand associated with Swaps, who won that year’s Kentucky Derby. The other day, Sherman, now 77 and the trainer of California Chrome, paid a visit to the gravesite of Swaps, whose remains are at the Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, and said a little prayer.

“It came true,” he said. “I was hoping he was another Swaps.”

California Chrome, like Swaps a chestnut-colored colt bred in California, brought Sherman full circle on Saturday by winning the 140th Derby to make Sherman the oldest trainer to win the Run for the Roses.

“He gave me the biggest thrill I’ve ever had in my life,” Sherman said.

In addition, California Chrome made the colt’s owners and breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, one of the greatest success stories in the history of the Derby. They bought California Chrome’s dam, the Not for Love mare Not the Chase, for $8,000 and decided to breed her, a decision, they were told, only a “dumbass” would do. In honor of that, they named their stable “Dumb Ass Partners” and have a donkey on the back of their silks.

Victor Espinoza rode California Chrome, giving the California-based jockey his second Derby win.

California Chrome is the first Derby winner who trains at Los Alamitos – primarily a Quarter Horse track – where he ended up when his previous home, Hollywood Park, closed. California Chrome was the last stakes winner at Hollywood Park.

California Chrome ($7), the favorite, prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths over Commanding Curve, who rallied from well back to finish second. Danza, one of four runners trained by Todd Pletcher, was 1 1/4 lengths farther back in third.

Wicked Strong came on for fourth and was followed by Samraat, 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.

California Chrome completed 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track in 2:03.66.

The win was the fifth straight for California Chrome – including the Santa Anita Derby – all since Espinoza took over as his rider. He earned $1,417,800 from a gross purse of $2,177,800 to push his career earnings past the $2.5 million mark.

California Chrome moves on to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 17, with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The current drought is the longest since the Triple Crown, whose final leg is the Belmont Stakes, was swept by Sir Barton in 1919.

A field of 19 went to the post on a gorgeous, 75-degree day here. There were 21 entered, but two, Hoppertunity and Pablo Del Monte, were scratched. Because there was one fewer than the maximum 20 runners, the inside stall in the starting gate was left open.

For such a large field, it was a fairly clean start, and California Chrome, wearing saddle-cloth No. 5, broke alertly and was forwardly placed the first time through the stretch. He was between Uncle Sigh and Chitu as the field neared the finish for the first time, but Espinoza was able to get him out of that spot and then outside, giving him a clear run the rest of the way.

“There was one inside, one outside. I could see everybody coming outside, and my heart went 100 miles an hour,” Espinoza said. When he got California Chrome out of that spot, “What a relief. I could let him stretch his legs,” Espinoza said.

There was quite a bit of trouble just behind the leaders the first time through. Vicar’s in Trouble, who started from the inside, ended up in a tight spot behind horses and had to check sharply. Danza was clobbered by his Pletcher-trained stablemate Vinceremos, who swerved across lanes. And as the field entered the first turn, Candy Boy clipped heels and had to check to the outside.

California Chrome was in the three path for the length of the backstretch, and as the field neared the far turn, Samraat moved up to his outside. At the quarter pole, there were four runners abreast, but Uncle Sigh yielded first, Chitu began to fade, and then California Chrome turned on the jets and opened a daylight advantage.

Watching from the stands, Sherman said he was thinking like the jockey he was before he retired and became a trainer.

“He was in the perfect spot. I was thinking, ‘Cool it, Victor,’ ” Sherman said. “Then I just hoped he had something left. When he sprinted away, I said, ‘Let me take over the last 70 yards.’ ”

For Coburn, the Derby completed a dream he has told early and often. Three weeks before the colt was born in 2011, Coburn says he dreamed the foal would be a chestnut colt with white on all four legs “and a big blaze face.” And that’s exactly what that Lucky Pulpit colt looked like.

California Chrome’s lineage traces, both top and bottom, to Swaps.

“To see all this happen, to see this dream come true, put up so much – your savings, your retirement – and see him win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words,” Coburn said.

Coburn said he and Martin turned down an offer of $6 million for 51 percent of the horse after the Santa Anita Derby. But selling would have meant California Chrome “would run in their colors, have a new trainer, and leave Los Alamitos, which he loves,” Coburn said.

“We knew in our souls what kind of horse we had,” he said. “This has been an incredible, incredible journey.”

Coburn turned 61 on Saturday. As birthdays go, “This is probably the best one so far,” he said.

Sherman was quietly confident all week. He’s been around the racetrack for 60 years, seen it all, and knew that for this horse, for this race, coming in late, not working over the track, was the right move. Ably assisted by his son, Alan, they stayed true to their plan, never wavering.

“You don’t train every horse the same,” Sherman said. “He was coming back in a month from the Santa Anita Derby. The Triple Crown is the toughest series of races. Two weeks to the Preakness, a mile and a half in the Belmont. I wanted him to be fresh.”

Sherman said California Chrome would remain here for at least a week with his friend, trainer Tom Proctor, before going to Maryland. California Chrome leaves here as the Derby winner, as does Sherman.

“I’m just the same old Art Sherman,” he said as to whether his life would now change. Sherman then paused briefly and added, “Except I won the Kentucky Derby.”