Santa Anita, Wood winners vault trainers into first-time Derby contention

California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza in the winner's circle after victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

Uncredited/AP

A month away from the Kentucky Derby, the sport that loves its history as much as any other has itself a nostalgic storyline for the early favorite in the Run for the Roses.

On Saturday, California Chrome stamped himself as the horse to watch with a 5 1/4-length victory in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby. California Chrome is trained by Art Sherman, 77, who has never saddled a Derby starter. However — here comes the history — in 1955, Sherman was the exercise rider for Swaps, who won the Derby that year.

Swaps was just the second California-bred to win the Derby, and there still have been only three. Sherman will try to make California Chrome the fourth.

”He’s my Swaps,” said Sherman, a former jockey who has been a trainer for 44 years. ”I’m very humbled to have a horse like this.”

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California Chrome is on a four-race winning streak. Under Victor Espinoza, he ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.52, paying $3.40 to win as the 3-5 favorite.

”Right now, he’s kind of freaky and I’m enjoying it,” Sherman said. ”I can’t believe the races I’ve been seeing.”

Earlier Saturday, in the other big Derby prep on the other side of the country at Aqueduct, Wicked Strong, a 9-1 long shot, vaulted into contention for Louisville with an upset victory in the $1 million Wood Memorial. Wicked Strong came into the race with one win in five races.

With the triumph, Wicked Strong sits in third place on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, which determines eligibility for the race.

With Rajiv Maragh aboard, Wicked Strong beat Samraat by 3 1/2 lengths. Samraat lost for the first time. Samraat is fourth on the leaderboard. Wood favorite Social Inclusion finished third.

Wicked Strong would also be the first Derby starter for his trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, whose name should sound familiar –€” he is the son of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens.

”I’d love to get another crack at it, that’s for sure,” said Jimmy Jerkens, whose previous best shot was with Quality Road in 2009 before the horse suffered a foot injury. ”He looks like a horse where distance shouldn’t bother him.”

Wicked Strong ran 1:49.31 for the 1 1/8 miles and paid $20.40 to win.

Trainer Rick Violette said runner-up Samraat is ticketed for the Derby.

”Other than getting the win, he got a huge education,” Violette said. ”As long as he comes out of it all right, we’ll head to Kentucky.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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