Few Kentucky Derby victories in recent memory have been as authoritative as California Chrome's on Saturday. The 5-2 favorite stalked a slower than expected early pace, cruising along in third place behind leaders Uncle Sigh and Chitu before taking control on the turn for home and opening up to win by daylight. It was the second Derby victory for jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown atop War Emblem in 2002, and the first for 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who was making his Kentucky Derby debut.
Like all Derby winners, California Chrome got a nearly perfect trip -- his only hiccup came when he broke awkwardly from the gate -- and an exquisite ride. Espinoza was somewhat aggressive getting the chestnut colt clear of traffic the first time past the grandstand, but then settled him down into a spot just behind the leaders. The rider let Chrome relax during the long run down the backstretch, easing him gradually to the outside, before asking him for run on the turn for home. By the time California Chrome reached the quarter pole, he was in the lead and the race was effectively over. In the winner's circle, owner Steve Coburn announced that he would see everybody in Baltimore for the Preakness. He'll be going with a legitimate Triple Crown contender.
Some other observations from a memorable 140th Kentucky Derby:
● For all the speed in this race, the pace was surprisingly moderate. The half mile went in 47 1/5 seconds, which is a far cry from how the Derby played out last year, when Palace Malice set Orb up for a closing victory by blowing through four furlongs in just over 45 seconds. California Chrome, who seems to be at his best when stalking the front-runners, was in perfect position to take control on the turn for home.
● This was a great victory for the connections of California Chrome. Since the colt won the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, whose story was chronicled by Tim Layden in the pages of Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago, have turned down a number of lucrative offers for an ownership stake in the horse. They took a huge gamble, and it just paid off. Big time.
Sherman, meanwhile, won the Derby on his first try as a trainer after spending most of his life in the game. A former exercise rider for Swaps (the 1955 Derby winner), the last time he was in Louisville for the race, there were still questions about whether rock and roll was here to stay. Sherman's victory is what makes the Derby so great. As Layden said in his story about California Chrome, "The formula for winning the Derby is this: There is no formula."
● There is going to be much made in the next two weeks about California Chrome's pedestrian winning time of 2:03.66. (For the sake of comparison, Secretariat won the 1973 Derby in the record time of 1:59 2/5.) He also ran the last quarter mile in a plodding 26 seconds, with 37-1 longshot Commanding Curve making up ground with every stride in the final yards. But all of that ignores the fact that, slow time or not, California Chrome beat every significant rival he had on Saturday. The colt has also now won his last five races by nearly 27 lengths. It may have been a slow time, but right now, there doesn't seem to be another 3-year-old horse in America who can touch him. He's a worthy Derby winner and a legitimate threat to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
He will, however, have plenty of vociferous doubters. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see a full field of 14 horses in the Preakness on May 17 at Pimlico. Plenty of horsemen are going to try to knock California Chrome from his perch at the top of the racing world. Let them try. For now, he's the best.