Kentucky Derby Review 2014:
California Chrome shows mettle

Art ShermanThe 140th Kentucky Derby provided a fairytale result for the budget-bred 5/2 favorite, California Chrome. Trained by Art Sherman (pictured), the stunning chestnut colt not only beat his better bred rivals but showed such superior speed in the stretch that his jockey, Victor Espinoza, was able to ease off him close to the line. He crossed it standing up in the saddle in a victory salute.

Dallas Stewart’s 38/1 long shot in the Kentucky Derby betting, Commanding Curve, ran on well in the closing stages, cutting through the pack to finish two lengths second. Todd Pletcher’s more popular Danza (87/10) was third.

California Chrome came into the race with the best recent form. He had cruised to victory in his previous starts, most recently in the Santa Anita Derby in April when he beat Bob Baffert’s Hoppertunity by more than five lengths.

He became Kentucky Derby favorite once Cairo Prince, the impressive winner of the Holy Bull Stakes trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, was ruled out of the race. He suffered a fetlock injury in mid April.

California Chrome attracted reports from his many detractors that he was looking a little stiff in the mornings when he arrived at Churchill Downs. Maybe his veteran trainer, Art Sherman, was actually the one who wasn’t moving particularly well?

The colt’s victory made the 77-year-old Sherman the oldest trainer to saddle a Kentucky Derby winner. The closest he had come to victory in the past was during his time as a work rider for Swaps in 1955. He was a teenager when Swaps won the Kentucky Derby for his trainer Mesh Tenney under Bill Shoemaker. Sherman said a prayer at Swaps’ grave prior to the race.

A good value favorite?

Espinoza had ridden Sherman’s star colt to victory in his four previous races and knew better than anyone just how easily he had won them. He also knew exactly what was necessary to win the Kentucky Derby. He won it in 2002 on Bob Baffert’s War Emblem. He thought that California Chrome should have been a shorter price in the Kentucky Derby betting.

If the colt had been trained by Baffert, Todd Pletcher or another big name trainer with form in the race, he probably would have been. If he had been well bred or owned by a better known operation he might well have been shorter too. Fortunately for the many bettors who believed in him, he won it in the style of a red hot favorite.

A triumph for owner breeders on a budget

Kentucky Derby winners (and losers) usually cost their owners a small fortune. California Chrome’s owners and breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, did not have that kind of cash. They both work hard five days a week in regular jobs and could not afford to compete with the wealthy buyers at the yearling sales. They had no choice but to breed their own.

Coburn and Martin had to use some of their retirement savings and rearrange their mortgages just to finance the breeding of the colt. They went into the deal more in hope than expectation and ran their colt in the name of the ‘Dumb Ass Partnership’. A stable hand used the phrase when commenting on their breeding plans. There is a green jackass on their silks.

They scraped around to find the $8,000 to buy the mare, Love The Chase, by Not For Love. She managed one win in her racing career of six starts, earning a total of $7,000. Coburn and Martin sent her to an inexpensive stallion, Lucky Pulpit, with a fee of just $2,500. It was more than lucky that the pairing produced California Chrome.

Lucky Pulpit was a useful son of Pulpit but did not show the speed of California Chrome on a racetrack. Originally trained by Clifford Sise Jr, he performed best as a two-year-old, winning two of his six starts and earning prize money of $95,000.

He failed to win a single race as a three-year-old, finishing seventh and last in the Santa Anita Derby in 2004 – the race that was won so easily by California Chrome a decade later under Espinoza. Espinoza rode Lucky Pulpit in the Oceanside Stakes at Del Mar in July 2004, placing third.

Lucky Pulpit won just three of his 22 races and placed ten times, earning a total of $210,000 for his owner breeders, Mr and Mrs Larry Williams. His form on the track predictably did not attract the best of breeding partners.

Not only was the breeding partnership inauspicious but the breeding and training location were too. California bred colts do not usually win the Kentucky Derby. It was way back in 1962 when the last one succeeded – Decidedly won for his trainer Horatio Luro.

Sherman is based at Los Alamitos in Orange County, a training center known for producing quarterhorses not thoroughbreds. This will probably be the first and last time that Los Alamitos is responsible for a Kentucky Derby winner.

The wealthy tried to buy in to the action

Coburn and Martin were offered a potentially life changing sum of $6 million for a 51% share in their star performer two months before the Kentucky Derby. It was offered by a person who enjoyed a lifestyle that they didn’t. Coburn said that it came from someone who had never had to ‘put on a pair of boots’ to go to work.

It was a tempting amount of cash but they did not want to lose control of California Chrome’s fate and did not consider the deal for long before deciding to retain full ownership.

What happened in the race?

It was a pretty clean break and California Chrome came out of the stalls well.  Gary Contessa’s Uncle Sigh quickly took the lead from Rosie Napravnik on Vicar’s In Trouble and hugged the rail, taking advantage of his low draw. Espinoza settled California Chrome in third place just behind Bob Baffert’s Chitu who was beside Uncle Sigh.

The early fractions were not fast. Espinoza’s decision to keep the leaders close was a good one. Calvin Borel adopted his usual tactics, holding up Ride On Curlin at the rear of the pack on the rail.

The order at the front of the pack was unchanged until Espinoza let California Chrome stride into the lead at the top of the stretch as Uncle Sigh weakened. Most of the jockeys had already gone for their whips but Espinoza exuded confidence, barely appearing to move. Chitu had also weakened, disappearing into the pack.

California Chrome had a five length lead as he entered the final furlong – the rest is history. Espinoza rode the colt as if he was saving him for another day. The time of 2 minutes 3.66 seconds was not spectacular but the ease of the victory was extraordinary.

The 13/2 second favorite, Wicked Strong trained by James Jerkens, ran a respectable race. He did not break well under Rajiv Maragh and had to ease his way into the midfield over the first half mile. He stayed on in the final stages to snatch fourth place from the more prominently ridden Samraat (167/10) on the line by a nose. Ride On Curlin’s chances were ruined by Borel’s hold up tactics. He did well to finish seventh.

Favorites do not have a great record in this race but California Chrome delivered a dream result not only for his optimistic owners and elderly trainer but for all his followers.