LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s not easy being the favorite. Everyone is always nipping at your heels — or in the case of California Chrome, your hooves.
Everything leading up to the 140th Kentucky Derby pointed toward California Chrome becoming the first California-bred horse to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. Four straight stakes wins made him the favorite even before Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia tabbed him with 5-2 odds following Wednesday’s post position draw. He got the favorable No. 5 spot out of the starting gate. Then on Thursday the No. 2 pick, Hoppertunity, had to be scratched from the race.
It was all too good to be true, right? Something had to be stirring in the racing cosmos.
The only thing stirring on Saturday was how easily California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza made their victory look in the 1¼-mile race. Horse and rider were never out of the money, settling into third place through the one-quarter, one-half and three-quarters poles before taking the lead at the mile marker and cruising to a 1¾-length win over Commanding Curve.
There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Neither Espinoza nor trainer Art Sherman was ready to proclaim California Chrome a guarantee to snap that 35-year drought. But co-owner Steve Coburn was.
"I said this horse would win the Kentucky Derby," said Coburn. "I said ‘When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown.’ I told people this colt will go down in history. When he wins the Triple Crown, he will be the first California Bred to ever win a Triple Crown. That’s where we’re going."
Every year the Kentucky Derby winner is followed with talk of conquering the Triple Crown. Some horses are worthy of the talk. Others not so much.
California Chrome is worthy. Maybe, in part, it’s the rest of the competitors. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Kentucky Oaks champion Untapable in the coming weeks; there is talk that the 3-year-old filly champion could join her male counterparts in either the Preakness in two weeks or the Belmont on June 7.
What is undeniable is that California Chrome backed up the hype on Saturday. The pace wasn’t blistering but the bay colt has won in all fashions, be it with speed at the outset or coming from behind. Espinoza made an earlier decision to let Chitu and Uncle Sigh set the pace. He admitted he felt a bit trapped at one point. The feeling didn’t last long.
"When I hit the first turn, my horse’s head was just outside a little bit from the front horses and that was it," said Espinoza. "I was like ‘What a relief.’ I can breathe, relax and let him stretch his legs. I think that win the race there.
"This horse has so much talent. I mean, by the three-eighths pole he was going so strong. I could see the other horses struggle a little bit. Him, was just like smooth. Turning for home, I let it go. That was it."
There have been 46 horses that have won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown. Twenty-one of them have won the Derby and the Preakness only to lose in the Belmont, including six in an eight-year period from 1997-2004. I’ll have Another was the last horse with that opportunity in 2012 but had to be scratched from the Belmont. Big Brown in 2008 appeared destined to become the 12th Triple Crown champion until jockey Kent Desormeaux realized early something was wrong with the horse and shut him down.
This was Espinoza’s second Derby victory. He was on War Emblem in 2002 and the pair also won the Preakness. They finished eighth in the Belmont that year.
"You know what, I go day to day," said Espinoza. "I was telling Art, now I have a lot of pressure for the next step. But we all have dreams. I’ve been very close the last time. I was just one step away. Hopefully with a little luck, I just go out there and race the race."
Sherman is 77 years old. He is now the oldest trainer to ever win a Kentucky Derby, surpassing Charlie Whittingham who was 76 when Sunday Silence won in 1989. California Chrome is the first horse Sherman has trained to a Derby start. He was an exercise rider for Derby champion Swaps in 1955, his last May experience at Churchill Downs.
Sherman was confident throughout this Derby week but cognizant of racing’s cruel nature.
"There’s always pressure when you’re riding on top," said Sherman. "I’ve been in the game for a long time and I know what can happen. I’ve seen a lot of good horses go by the wayside. If I just keep my fingers crossed and say if it’s meant. I do the best I can, keeping it sound. I have good people working for me and they’ve got my back. I’ve got a great groom and my family. I’ve had the same people working for me 15 years. It’s a family affair and I think that helps."