LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All winter and spring, California Chrome kept getting better, even as his top 3-year-old rivals succumbed to injuries or delivered stagnant performances.
The Kentucky Derby is known for confounding expectations with its packed fields and unevenly tested competitors. But California Chrome struck a blow for order on Saturday as he surged to victory in the first leg of the Triple Crown in front of an announced crowd of 164,906, the second-largest attendance in the Derby's 140-year history.
Starting from the No. 6 post as a 2-1 favorite, California Chrome stayed close to the lead the entire race and broke free down the stretch under jockey Victor Espinoza, winning easily in an unofficial time of 2:03.66. Commanding Curve came in second while Danza finished third. The second-choice coming in, Wicked Strong, was a respectable fourth.
California Chrome paid $7, $5.60 and $4.20. The 37-1 long-shot Commanding Curve returned $31.80 and $15.40. Danza paid $6 to show.
A chestnut colt, California Chrome is the first California bred horse to win the Derby since 1962. He was the fastest horse coming in and also, perhaps, the best story.
His owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, are far from old-timey racing royalty. They're middle-class people who met when they partnered to buy California Chrome's mother, Maryland-bred Love the Chase, for $8,000. They spent another $2,000 to pair her with an undistinguished stallion named Lucky Pulpit. Only a wild optimist could have seen the potential magic in the mix.
But Coburn and Martin loved the curious, personable colt and placed him under the care of veteran California trainer Art Sherman, now the oldest to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
Sherman had been a steady winner for years without ever getting his hands on a Triple Crown talent. California Chrome brought him back to Churchill Downs for the first time in 59 years; Sherman's last visit was as an 18-yeard-old stable hand for 1955 champion Swaps.
Even Espinoza was looking for some redemption. His last Triple Crown victory was 2002 in the Preakness with War Emblem, who also won the Derby that year. With more than 3,000 career victories, though, people had wondered when the 41-year-old would get back to the winner's circle in a Triple Crown race.
As California Chrome continued to exceed expectations with dominant wins in his prep races, Coburn and Martin received potentially life-changing purchase offers, the greatest at $6 million for 51 percent of the horse. They defiantly rejected the well-monied suitors.
This was their story to see through. And Sherman's.
After bringing the improbable tale to a climax in Kentucky, California Chrome will try to write an even grander chapter by becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The Preakness Stakes is on May 17 at Pimlico Race Course.
After No. 2 choice Hoppertunity (6-1) scratched on Thursday because of soreness in his front foot, Wicked Strong was bumped up to a 6-1 second choice. Odds also dropped for Candy Boy, Intense Holiday, Tapiture, Danza and Vicar's In Trouble. Pablo Del Monte was slotted in the 20th post position, but pulled out of the Derby on Friday.
Wicked Strong was trying to win for Boston, where the horse's ownership group is based. He was renamed last year to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And 5 percent of his Triple Crown winnings will go to charities supporting them.
A triumph by Wicked Strong, was supposed to be some kind of vindication for understated New York trainer Jimmy Jerkens. In 2009, he had to scratch potential Derby favorite Quality Road because of an injury just five days before the race. The colt's owner then replaced Jerkens with star trainer Todd Pletcher. He was devastated and unsure if he'd ever have another shot at the Triple Crown stage.
Other storylines that didn't pan out today:
-- Rosie Napravnik, the nation's leading jockey and winner of Friday's Kentucky Oaks aboard Untapable, was trying to become the first female jockey to win the Derby. She has the highest finish ever for a woman in the Derby -- coming in fifth last year riding Mylute.
-- Danza, named for actor Tony Danza, became a fan and betting favorite, and had moved up to the third choice on Derby day. But experts could not decide if he was the real deal or the ultimate flash in the pan. Was Danza the colt who had little resume as a Kentucky Derby contender until three weeks ago, an also-ran in trainer Todd Pletcher's barn? Or was he the sensation who whipped a field of more touted 3-year-olds in the Arkansas Derby? As it turned out today, he was the real deal, finishing a strong third.
-- Brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz were making their first Derby starts. Jose, 20, was aboard Samraat, while Irad, 21, was riding Uncle Sigh. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, the brothers have become top jockeys on the New York racing circuit.
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