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California Chrome: Kentucky Derby Champion

By Fred Altieri

Observer Reporter

What a horse. What a team. And California bred. California Chrome's magical mystery tour intensified as the three-year old wonder horse thoroughly electrified and wooed the horseracing world and beyond by winning the 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in his own superlative style and ridden in brilliant fashion by jockey Victor Espinoza on Saturday, May 3.

The enchanted chestnut-colored colt contrasted by the elegant white markings on his face and all four legs and supremely trained by Art Sherman is now officially ready to mount a very serious assault to be the sport's first Triple Crown winner in 36 years.

This decision was made by owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn following California Chrome's clear domination when he once again punctured an entire field with an explosive strike at the top of the stretch.

Sherman, 77-years old, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby in Louisville, 59 years after being the exercise rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps.

His emotional response on the NBC broadcast was especially heartfelt: "He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life. When I went over to Swaps' grave the other day I said a little prayer and it came true. I just said, "I hope he's another Swaps." I was riding him the last 70 yards with Victor... I think he was riding him too. So he had a lot of weight on him."

The storybook finish coincided with co-owner Coburn's 61st birthday. He couldn't have been more elated with his artful trainer: "Art Sherman has come full circle from exercising a California bred that won the Kentucky Derby to training a California bred who won the Kentucky Derby. So all I got to say is: "Do you non-believers believe this horse now and believe this man can train a horse? Because if you don't you need to have your head examined." It's a dream come true and it's a great birthday present."

Espinoza, soon 42, has now ridden two Kentucky Derby winners, the first coming aboard War Emblem in 2002. The unbeatable five-length lead with a couple of hundred yards to go allowed California Chrome and Espinoza, standing up as they crossed the finish line while raising his whip triumphantly to the crowd, to savor their last few strides together on the acclaimed track.

He gave his immediate thoughts while walking Chrome back to the winner's circle: "I never had a dream that I would win two Kentucky Derby's in my entire career. It's just an awesome feeling ... working hard and everything comes along. We get along together very well. The first time I rode him he was just an impressive horse, an amazing horse. I think we get along because I let him do his thing, let him enjoy the race around, whatever he wants to do. No time to like go against him and I think he likes that."

The victory was a true family affair. Alan Sherman, who assists his father Art training their current roster of 15 thoroughbreds from the Art Sherman Racing barn at Los Alamitos Race Course, reflected on the historical run and what it meant for the Sherman family:

"It was just an amazing day. It's the pinnacle of our sport. We've worked our whole lives to make it come true. It was special for all of us. We had a lot of fun. I wish my daughter could have been here but she's eight months pregnant so she couldn't make the trip. It was an awesome experience for the whole family."

The surreal moment was witnessed 2,000 miles away by thousands of Chromies, as the colt's legions are now called, packing the stands in Southern California at two supporting racetracks: Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Chrome's unofficial home racing turf and Los Alamitos Race Course, the horse's official training track.

At Santa Anita, the day's racing schedule was altered to allow the cheering throngs to experience a California love fest during "the fastest two minutes in sports." The last California bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby was Decidedly, ridden by Bill Hartack, in 1962.

Anna Wells, exercise rider for Sherman Racing and also maintaining the office while part of the team's on the road, was on hand to witness the maddening scene while watching the event unfold on one of the track's big screens: "When I saw him get to the quarter pole I was so caught up in the crowd around me. It was hard to focus on the horse running and all these people shaking me, treating me like a rag doll."

"It was just crazy because at the top of the stretch we knew he won. I was in shock. I had people crying. I had people hugging me, people I didn't even know. One of the biggest things that made me emotional was seeing Art on T.V. I was so happy for him. I love this team and they're like my family now."

High up in the press box, Santa Anita Equibase race charter and 30-year-plus industry veteran Ken Davis gave his eagle-eyed account: "What was so impressive is that California Chrome broke well today and put himself in a good position again. He has what we call 'tactical speed.' There were two horses dueling on the lead. He sat behind those two horses and was in the right spot. At the top of the stretch Victor let him run and he ran away from them."

Davis continued, "He just has a combination of good, early speed and then he has the ability to find a little bit more. He's truly a freakish horse. He beat pretty much every other horse in the race today who had better bloodlines than he has. He's phenomenal. He doesn't have to come from way back. He can lay up close to the pace. That's the way Affirmed ran, our last Triple Crown winner in 1978. But that's what the key thing is: he's able to put himself right in the race. This has been good for the industry and good for California."

Quite notably, the track's surface at Churchill Downs did not favor California Chrome according to Alan Sherman: "I'm not sure he liked the track a whole lot. I think he tolerated it. I don't think that was his best surface. He won but I think there are other surfaces that he would like better. The track at Churchill Downs has a different material in it than in California. There's a lot of sand on that track. He likes a dirt track."

Sherman gave Espinoza a glowing review for his execution on the track: "I think Victor won the race going into the first turn when he got a good position there and didn't have to lose any ground, didn't have to get shuffled back. He held his ground and everything worked out great."

He also gave his three-year old superstar a seal of good health: "The horse is feeling great. He came out of the race in good shape, ate up all his feed."

The next stop on the tour is the 139th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. What a horse. What a team. And California bred.

Stayed tuned... once again.


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