LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For decades it was California dreamin’ to think that a horse from the Left Coast could win the Kentucky Derby. Only three had — Morvich in 1922, Swaps in 1955, and Decidedly in 1962. The way his co-owner saw it, his three-year-old colt had no idea where he’d been born.
“He didn’t know he’s a California-bred,” Steve Coburn said Saturday evening after 5-2 favorite California Chrome ran away from 18 rivals to win the 140th Run for the Roses by a length and three-quarters in 2 minutes, 3.66 seconds over 37-1 longshot Commanding Curve, as Danza outran Wicked Strong from Beverly-based Centennial Farms for third.
“Our guardian angels have been watching over us and they put this horse on the right path,” said Coburn, whose Dumbass Partners paid $10,000 for the colt’s mare and stud fee and recently turned down a $6 million offer from an unnamed buyer for a controlling interest. “We’ll see you in Maryland and then we’ll see you in New York. Why not? Why not?”
It was a Hollywood story for racing romantics, played out before an audience of 164,906. Art Sherman, who was Swaps’s exercise rider before his Derby victory and who visited his graveyard on the Churchill Downs grounds last week, became the oldest trainer (at 77) to win the Derby.
“This has to be the sweetest moment of my life,” declared Sherman, who watched the 1955 race from the backside. “To be my age and have something like this happen, what can you say?”
The two most compelling story lines were California Chrome’s and Wicked Strong’s, whose name was a tribute to the victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. Despite his unfavorable outside post position Wicked Strong, who went off as a 6-1 second choice, figured to have a decent chance if he could tuck in behind the leaders and come charging down the stretch as he did to win the Wood Memorial.
“The trip played out pretty good,” said jockey Rajiv Maragh, who moved up his mount from 10th at the mile to sixth at the top of the stretch. “Going into the last turn I felt like I was in a position where if he picked it up from there like he did in the Wood Memorial he would be able to get a big piece of it. He came on at the end. He was just fourth best.”
California Chrome, who came out of the No. 5 post, had a comfortable trip once jockey Victor Espinoza got past a few anxious early moments when he feared his horse would be trapped. But when he realized at the first turn that there’d be running room between Chitu and Uncle Sigh Espinoza, who’d won the 2002 Derby with War Emblem, stopped worrying.
“I was like, what a relief,” he said. “I can breathe, relax, let him stretch his legs.”
By the mile California Chrome was in front by a head and shifting into overdrive. By the stretch, his margin was five lengths. Commanding Curve, who’d been 11th at the mile and ninth at the stretch, was in hyperdrive but couldn’t make up ground on a horse that had won the Santa Anita Derby by more than five lengths. “Coming down the stretch I was thinking: ‘Keep rollin’, big boy, keep rollin’,” Sherman said.
In a race that has been known for killing favorites’ dreams, this was a result that nobody quibbled with. “Art Sherman is a good story,” said Don Little Jr. who runs Centennial Farms, Wicked Strong’s owner. “If you had to have someone else to win it, that would be the one. He’s paid his dues. It’s nice to have the good guys win.”
Two more of the same and California Chrome becomes a Triple Crown winner, the first since Affirmed in 1978.
“Now the pressure’s coming,” Espinoza told Sherman as he hugged him.
His trainer, who waited a lifetime to smell the roses, envisions more flowers in his future. “I want to tell you something,” Sherman said. “I think California Chrome is the rock star and I’m his manager and I’m going all the way.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.