California Chrome pulls away for win at Kentucky Derby

Jockey Victor Espinoza begins to celebrate after guiding California Chrome to victoryin the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Horse racing, the most unpredictable of sports, had the most predictable of endings when California Chrome won the 140th Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

It’s unusual for the favorite to win horse racing’s biggest race but the lightly bred -- $10,000 -- California horse was the easy winner in the 140th running of this national tradition.

Can he win the Triple Crown?

Certainly there has been little in his recent past to say differently. Saturday was his fifth consecutive win, including the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978.


His win by 1 3/4 lengths, Victor Espinoza aboard, paid $7.00, $5.60 and $4.20. Commanding Curve finished second and paid $31.80 and $15.40. Danza, named after actor Tony Danza, was third, paying $6.00.

California Chrome’s trainer is Art Sherman, who used to be an exercise boy for the legendary Swaps. He’s now become the oldest trainer, at 77, to win the Kentucky Derby.

Asked after the race, Sherman went nostaligic.

“Well, when I went to Swaps’ grave the other day I said a little prayer and it came true,” Sherman said. “I said I hope he’s another Swaps.”

Swaps won the Kentucky Derby in 1955 but was overshadows by Nashua in the remaining Triple Crown races.

Still, this horse that trains at overlooked Los Alamitos in Orange County is a legitimate Triple Crown contender. He hasn’t been beat since November of last year.

“I think I rode the horse with Victor the last 70 yards,” Sherman said. “It was a picture-perfect ride. He was right where he should have been all the way around. Coming down the stretch I was thinking: ‘Keep rollin’ big boy. Keep rollin’.’ This has to be the sweetest moment of my life. To be my age and have something like this happen, what can you say? For all my friends in California, this is for you. We did it!”

The grind of the Triple Crown races is tough to navigate. If he is sound, he will race in two weeks in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore at a 1 3/16 miles and follow that up with a race in the Belmont Stakes in New York at 1 1/2 miles, a race dirt horses rarely run.

California Chrome, a chestnut colt, is the first California bred to win the Derby since 1962. He was the fastest horse coming in and also, perhaps, the best story.

His owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, are far from old-timey racing royalty. They’re middle-class people who met when they partnered to buy California Chrome’s mother, Maryland-bred Love the Chase, for $8,000. They spent another $2,000 to pair her with an undistinguished stallion named Lucky Pulpit. Only a wild optimist could have seen the potential magic in the mix.

But Coburn and Martin loved the curious, personable colt and placed him under the care of Sherman, a steady winner for years without ever getting his hands on a Triple Crown talent.

Other stories that didn’t pan out today:

*Jockey Rosie Napravnik, the nation’s leading jockey and winner of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks aboard Untapable, was trying to become the first female jockey to win the Derby. She has the highest finish ever for a woman in the Derby — coming in fifth last year riding Mylute.

*Danza, named for actor Tony Danza, became a fan and betting favorite, and had moved up to the third choice on Derby day. But experts could not decide if he was the real deal or the ultimate flash in the pan. Was Danza the colt who had little resume as a Kentucky Derby contender until three weeks ago, an also-ran in trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn? Or was he the sensation who whipped a field of more touted 3-year-olds in the Arkansas Derby? As it turned out today, he was the real deal, finishing a strong third.

*Brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz were making their first Derby starts. Jose, 20, was aboard Samraat, while Irad, 21, was riding Uncle Sigh. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, the brothers have become top jockeys on the New York racing circuit.

Childs Walker contributed to this report.