04/08/2014 11:33AM

Santa Anita: California Chrome - from maiden-race loser to Kentucky Derby favorite

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome won the King Glorious in his final start at 2, becoming the last horse to win a stakes at Hollywood Park.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Almost a year ago, Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome began to catch trainer Art Sherman’s attention.

California Chrome was ready to start in the first race for juveniles of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. Going into the race, Sherman gave the colt the sort of mild compliment that a trainer with an unraced juvenile might express.

“He acts like he can run a little bit,” Sherman said last April 23, three days before the colt’s debut in the 4 1/2-furlong race for California-breds.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from Santa Anita this Saturday; check out last weekend’s coverage]

Sherman – and owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin – could never have imagined where it would lead.

California Chrome finished second in that race, beaten by Time for a Hug. California Chrome rebounded to win his second start, which came over 4 1/2 furlongs May 17. By then, Sherman was rightfully looking into the future.

“I think the farther he goes, the better,” Sherman said then.

The first stakes for juveniles in Southern California in 2013 was the 5 1/2-furlong Willard Proctor Memorial last June at Hollywood. California Chrome ran near the pace for the first half-mile and finished fifth behind Kobe’s Back, who was making his stakes debut.

There was talk of a start in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship in July for California Chrome, but Sherman opted for the Graduation Stakes for California-breds over 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar on July 31. In his first start with blinkers, California Chrome closed from fourth in a field of seven to win by 2 3/4 lengths under jockey Alberto Delgado. He had stamped himself as a California-bred to follow and earned more accolades from Sherman.

“I really think he’ll go longer,” Sherman said at the barn the next morning. “He’s acting like that with the way he’s training. He’s going to be a nice 3-year-old. He’s a tough little guy.”

California Chrome had a rough stretch in late summer and autumn.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

He had traffic troubles and finished sixth in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity over seven furlongs Sept. 4. In his next race, the Golden State Juvenile Stakes for California-breds at Santa Anita on Nov. 1, he had a slow start and finished sixth. That race came on the first day of the Breeders’ Cup on a track that was friendly to front-runners.

In his final start at 2, California Chrome won the $200,000 King Glorious Stakes for California-breds over seven furlongs by 6 1/4 lengths on Dec. 22. The performance was somewhat lost in the setting of the day: The King Glorious came on the last day of racing at Hollywood Park, and California Chrome won the last stakes in track history.

Victor Espinoza rode California Chrome for the first time in the King Glorious.

“He’s growing, and he’s definitely maturing,” Sherman said in the winner’s circle. “Victor said he was just cruising. He said, ‘Please put me on more of those.’ ”

California Chrome is unbeaten in three starts this year – the California Cup Derby on Jan. 25, the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 8, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby last Saturday.

California Chrome has won those races by a combined 18 lengths. He is likely to be favored in the Kentucky Derby. A year ago, that sequence of events would have belonged only in a dream.