Steven Coburn and Perry Martin's homebred California Chrome clinched his status as the probable favorite for the Kentucky Derby with another dazzling display in Saturday's Grade 1, $1,000,750 Santa Anita Derby. Sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the wake of three straight romps, the Art Sherman trainee left his rivals toiling turning into the stretch and won in hand by 5 1/4 lengths.
Rebel winner Hoppertunity finished a clear second by 3 1/2 lengths, and Robert B. Lewis hero Candy Boy wore down the maiden Dublin Up for third.
Sherman had compared California Chrome to the all-time great Swaps, another California-bred chestnut, who turned the Santa Anita Derby/Kentucky Derby double in 1955. A young Sherman had accompanied Hall of Famer Swaps to Churchill Downs. Now 59 years later, California Chrome will take him back to Louisville, where he will most likely be favored to emulate the mighty Swaps.
California Chrome got off to an awkward start in the Santa Anita Derby. Shuffled out of position momentarily, he quickly recovered for regular rider Victor Espinoza, and forced the pace set by Dublin Up through fractions of :22 4/5 and :47.
Candy Boy, the 5-2 second choice, was a forwardly-placed third. Schoolofhardrocks, hitherto a closer, was hung out four wide on the clubhouse turn as he flashed uncharacteristic early speed before dropping back. Hoppertunity, meanwhile, crept into fourth down the backstretch, and the 4-1 chance appeared to be traveling well just behind the leaders entering the final turn.
But California Chrome was just cruising himself, and Dublin Up merely maintained the lead on his sufferance. After Dublin Up reeled off six furlongs in 1:10 4/5, however, California Chrome simply galloped past him on his own power on the far turn, with Espinoza sitting chilly in the saddle. The favorite opened up easily at the top of the stretch, and Hoppertunity and Candy Boy could not match his brilliant change of gear.
Espinoza asked him ever so gently, and briefly, to leave the result beyond any doubt, then wrapped up on the utterly dominant colt. California Chrome, who clocked the mile in 1:35, finished 1 1/8 miles on the fast track in 1:47 2/5 and paid $3.40 to win.
"He knows what's going on (when he goes to the gate)," Espinoza said. "He's calm and focused, but for some reason, we missed the break a tiny bit, but I put him in the race right away. I didn't want to get stuck in traffic. It worked out well."
"It was awesome -- that's all I can say," Sherman said. "I got a little spooked leaving the gate. He got banged around pretty good, but I really think he's a better horse stalking.
"When he won the San Felipe (last time out), he was on the lead all the way which is something new to me, but I really prefer this type of race where he's right off the lead.
"I know that the horse likes to have to have company," the trainer added. "I've seen all his races; he's pretty competitive. He doesn't mind being hooked. Right now, he's kind of freaky and I'm enjoying it. I can't believe the races I've been seeing. A length or two might have been all right with me."
Aside from Kentucky Derby favoritism, California Chrome also sits atop the points leaderboard. His Santa Anita Derby victory was worth 100 points, and combined with the 50 earned in the San Felipe, he is the clear leader with a total of 150 points.
Hoppertunity once again did his best work in deep stretch, and past the wire, in a pleasing prep for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. With 40 points for his runner-up effort here, added to the 50 for his Rebel win and five for his fourth in the Risen Star, Hoppertunity has 95 points.
Baffert complimented the winner before crediting Hoppertunity with a solid performance.
"He's a really good horse," Baffert said of California Chrome. "I was really happy with my race. I'm glad I ran my horse. He got $200,000 for finishing second. I got beat today but I'm really happy with my horse. Oh, yeah: he's going (to the Kentucky Derby)."
Candy Boy, who brought only 10 points in from his Lewis score, was in a protracted battle with Dublin Up for third. By finally grabbing those 20 points, the John Sadler colt now has a total of 30, which puts him 16th on the Kentucky Derby list at the moment.
"We'd like to race on," Sadler said. "We'll see where the points fall and if 30 points gets us to move on (into the Derby), we'll move on. We think our horse likes distance. The speed today has been staying."
Gary Stevens, Candy Boy's rider, was not disappointed in his third.
"Candy Boy ran a super race," the Hall of Famer said. "He was just third-best today. I know Victor (Espinoza) got banged around at the start and we did, too. We settled down and we were comfortable, but I could see that Victor was very confident, while giving his horse a little breather. I could tell Victor was going very easy when he began to move. He moved out on the turn and the horse took off. I think my horse will continue to improve."
Dublin Up was relegated to fourth, followed by Big Tire, Rprettyboyfloyd, Friendswith K Mill and Schoolofhardrocks.
With the $600,000 winner's check, California Chrome joined millionaires' row with $1,134,850 in earnings, and his scorecard now reads 10-6-1-0. The flashy, aptly-named colt 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 $100,000 Graduation for California-breds at Del Mar going 5 1/2 furlongs. Sixth in the Del Mar Futurity and the 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 $200,000 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 $250,000 California Cup Derby for state-breds by 5 1/2 lengths on January 25. California Chrome ventured into Grade 2 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 on Saturday.
California Chrome will therefore bring a four-race winning streak, by a combined total of 24 1/4 lengths, into the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
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. This extended family is responsible for Cascapedia, the champion older mare of 1977. Further back, one finds none other than Swaps, who is not only a model for him to follow, but a distant relative.
"He's my Swaps, let's put it that way," Sherman said. "If all goes well, we'll ship to Kentucky probably a week before the Derby."