Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred California Chrome lived up to all expectations with a scintillating victory in Saturday's 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. In the process, the gleaming chestnut made 77-year-old Art Sherman the oldest trainer to ever saddle a Derby winner.
"He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life," an emotional Sherman said.
Sherman has compared California Chrome to all-time great Swaps, another California-bred chestnut who turned the Santa Anita Derby/Kentucky Derby double in 1955. A young 18-year-old Sherman accompanied Hall of Famer Swaps to Churchill Downs as his exercise rider and watched that Derby from the backside.
Now 59 years later, California Chrome has taken Sherman back to the Twin Spires, and this time the veteran horseman stood in the spotlight as trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner.
"Just awesome. I'm breathless. This is so cool," Sherman grinned. "I think I rode the horse with Victor (Espinoza) the last 70 yards. 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!"
For co-owner Coburn, the whole experience has been more than a dream come true. California Chrome shares a birthday with his sister Brenda, who died of cancer at age 36.
"I've got somebody up there very special watching us," Coburn noted. "To see all this happen for my partner Perry Martin, our wives, our families, to see this dream come true that we have put so much blood, sweat and tears, our savings, our retirement into this horse, and see this horse win the Kentucky Derby...
"I said this horse would win the Kentucky Derby. When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I said I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown. It will be 36 years this year since there's a Triple Crown winner," he added. "This colt will go down in history."
A major plotline in this year's Derby concerned the ownership groups donating a percentage of their horses' earnings to various charities. One that was missed, though, was Espinoza's own good works. During the press conference, the rider brought to attention a cause dear to his heart, which just happens to coincide with Coburn.
"I just want to mention one thing," Espinoza said, tearing up. "One day I went to City of Hope in L.A. All the kids, they have cancer. I can't go in there. Really, I cry.
"Since that time, I donate 10 percent of my earnings for all the kids that have cancer. It makes me cry to see all the kids that can't even have a life like we have. It's just heartbreaking for everybody. I hope today, what earnings I have, I make a change to one of those kids."
California Chrome, who became the first California-bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962, helped make a lot of dreams come true on Saturday.
Breaking strongly from the gate, the Lucky Pulpit colt headed straight to the front before Espinoza settled his mount back into a tracking position. Uncle Sigh led the way on the backstretch with Chitu and Samraat keeping in close attendance to his outside through splits of :23 and :47 1/5.
California Chrome and Espinoza bided their time in the second flight of runners and began closing ground on the front runners after three-quarters in 1:11 4/5. The duo rallied rounding the turn, hit the front in the stretch and pulled off to post an easy 1 3/4-length win in 2:03 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles over the fast track.
"I never felt in my dreams that I would win two Kentucky Derbies in my entire career," said Espinoza, who captured the 2002 running with War Emblem from the same 5 post. "I was a young guy and I never knew I was going to be a jockey and look at me now. It is an awesome feeling.
"I think this one is more exciting for me than last one. Last one I was young. I was kind of shocked, too. It's like a dream now to win the second one.
"This was a typical race for him," he explained. "He ran like he always does. Art just said, 'You know him, ride him.' I had the trip I wanted. I don't mess with him too much. I just stretch his legs a little bit and then let him do his thing. Pressure will be back on for the Preakness, but that's OK."
Sent off the 5-2 favorite, California Chrome paid $7.
Commanding Curve finished second, 1 1/4 lengths up on Danza while Wicked Strong followed by another 2 3/4 lengths.
"All I had to do was just ride him hard and he gave me everything," Shaun Bridgmohan praised his mount, Commanding Curve. "I was starting to get him geared up when he turned for home and I had half the field beat at that point. I just was looking somewhere for him to go. Once I got him down the lane, man, he lengthened his stride and really dug in for me."
"I wish I was out there (in the infield winner's circle), but you know, hey, I thank God for everything, the way it is, and that's what keeps us going for next year. Hopefully, we'll be back here next year," said Dallas Stewart, who for the second year in a row sent out the Derby runner-up.
"I would never get frustrated over that," he added. "There's a lot of things to be frustrated about. Getting beat in a horse race isn't one of them."
When asked about the Preakness Stewart remarked, "You know, who knows? Maybe. Yeah, probably. We'll see. He's a big, strong horse. You can see he handled the paddock real good. He handles a lot of things good. So, I doubt the race would knock him out. I was just hoping California Chrome would kind of give in a little bit, but he didn't. We were running at him. I mean, Shaun (Bridgmohan) said, 'He was running, Dallas.' So I'm very proud of him."
Samraat completed the top five under the wire and was followed by Dance With Fate, Ride On Curlin, Medal Count, Chitu, We Miss Artie, General a Rod, Intense Holiday, Candy Boy, Uncle Sigh, Tapiture, Harry's Holiday, Vinceremos, Wildcat Red and Vicar's In Trouble.
"I had a horrible trip," asserted Gary Stevens, who was aboard Candy Boy. "On the first turn Rajiv Maragh came over on Wicked Strong and shut me off. Then he shut (Corey) Nakatani off (on Dance With Fate), causing me to steady again. We're both lucky we didn't fall. We need to take care of the horse and rider."
"It was awesome. What a great feeling," said Corey Lanerie in contrast after finishing 16th on Harry's Holiday in what was his first Derby appearance. "You know, I thought I would actually be more nervous. But to me, I guess I prepared myself to ride like it was just another race. I was actually a lot more aware of my surroundings than I was nervous. I had a great trip. He kind of got a little tired on me going into the final turn. I rode on him a little bit to see if I could get a little piece. The last eighth of a mile, I just took care of him."
Total attendance on Saturday was 164,906, the second highest to the 165,307 recorded in 2012. The Oaks/Derby double, with Untapable, was worth $11.40.
California Chrome began his career at Hollywood Park last spring. He was runner-up on his debut going 4 1/2 furlongs in April, broke his maiden over the same trip in May, and next finished fifth in the Willard Proctor. The son of Lucky Pulpit then rebounded to take the Graduation for California-breds at Del Mar going 5 1/2 furlongs. Sixth in the Del Mar Futurity and Golden State Juvenile at Santa Anita in his next two outings, California Chrome concluded his two-year-old campaign with a 6 1/4-length romp in the King Glorious at Hollywood over seven furlongs.
The King Glorious, the final stakes ever held at storied Hollywood, marked a turning point. Having learned how to run, and use his devastating burst of speed effectively, California Chrome hasn't lost since. He successfully stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in his sophomore debut, taking the California Cup Derby for state-breds by 5 1/2 lengths on January 25.
The flashy, aptly-named colt ventured into graded company for the March 8 San Felipe, also over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita, and dusted pace rival Midnight Hawk by 7 1/4 lengths. He dispatched even better foes with similar ease in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, schooling his rivals by 5 1/4 lengths, and brought a four-race, 24 1/4-length combined win streak, into the Kentucky Derby.
The $1,417,800 winner's share of the $2,177,800 Derby purse doubled California Chrome's earnings to $2,552,650 to go along with his 11-7-1-0 career record.
Bred in California by his owners, California Chrome is the first registered foal from the winning Love the Chase, a daughter of Not for Love who has since produced a pair of full sisters to the Derby winner. This extended family is responsible for Cascapedia, the champion older mare of 1977.
Further back, one finds none other than the mighty Swaps, who has proven not only a model for California Chrome to follow but a distant relative.