by Billy Reed
WAVE 3 News Contributor
A few hours before the 140th Kentucky Derby, I interviewed jockey Victor Espinoza for WAVE 3 News in Louisville. He had just won the third race at Churchill Downs aboard Masochistic, but I didn't want to talk about that. I wanted to ask him about California Chrome, the favorite he would ride in the Derby.
Although the colt had won his last four races by more than 23 lengths combined, and although he had romped over his field in the Santa Anita Derby, he had hardly convinced all the media wise guys who cover horse racing in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas and even California.
A lot of them said he wouldn't hit the board. They questioned his pedigree, his toughness, and his competition. His dam once sold for $8,000. How could she produce a Kentucky Derby winner? Everybody loved his trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, but he didn't ship California Chrome to Louisville until the Tuesday before the Derby and didn't even work him over the track. Wasn't that a clue that he was in over his head?
All this bothered Espinoza not a bit. He didn't flinch when I asked him if he expected California Chrome to produce a performance so impressive that Derby lovers will be talking about it for years to come.
"This is California Chrome's day," he told me. "This is his biggest race and he will show what kind of horse he is."
The weather was about as good as it gets on the first Saturday in May in Louisville, Ky. When post time for the Derby finally rolled around at 6:32 p.m., a few minutes late, the second largest crowd in the race's history had resoundingly rejected the critics by making California Chrome the 2-to-1 favorite in the field of 19, making him one of the shortest-priced favorites in recent years.
When the starting gate finally broke open and the field barreled down the stretch for the first time, California Chrome was perfectly placed just behind the leaders. And then, as the race unfolded, all the pretenders began falling by the wayside until, at the top of the stretch, this copper-colored colt surged to the lead and made the Derby his.
It has been so long since racing has had a Triple Crown winner – Affirmed in 1978 was the last – that today's racing fans are desperate for a superhorse to call their own. Every year, they hope to see the new Citation, Secretariat, or Seattle Slew. And every year for the last couple of decades – certainly for this century – they have been disappointed.
Until Derby 140. As the horses pounded down the stretch, greatness returned to the Derby after a long absence. In what was regarded by everyone except Chrome's fans as a wide-open, impossible-to-handicap Derby, the big colt completed a thoroughly professional trip by drawing off to a victory that left the doubters choking on their Daily Racing Forms. The time for the mile and a quarter was a modest 2:03 and change, but so what? The brilliance of the performance was what mattered.
At the end, the only colt running at the leader was Commanding Curve, who gave trainer Dallas Stewart his second consecutive Derby runner-up finish with a colt that was doubtful to make the field until a week before the race (last year's runner-up was Golden Soul).
The third-place horse, Danza, named for the actor, did not run back to his romp in the Arkansas Derby, but ran credibly for Pletcher and jockey Joe Bravo. But everybody else was Out Shelby, an old Louisville phrase for somebody who's a hopeless loser.
None of the most-discussed scenarios materialized. Calvin Borel did not come up the rail with Ride On Curlin. Rosie Napravnik did not threaten to become the first female jockey to win the Derby. Medal Count did not look like the best horse that Dale Romans has ever trained. Intense Holiday, General a Rod, and Harry's Holiday were not good enough to make their owners the first Louisvillians to win the Derby since 1914.
Wicked Strong, named in honor of the Boston Marathon survivors, and Uncle Sigh, whose owner donates part of his earnings to the Wounded Warriors Fund, did not provide feel-good stories for bleeding hearts. And Wildcat Red did not reward the UK and U of L fans who bet his name because they mistakenly assumed his name had something to do with local basketball. (Memo to these folks: There are part of the world, believe it or not, where nobody cares about the Cats and the Cards.)
Nope, this Derby was strictly a one-horse show. The best horse not only won, he dominated, and it is not premature to begin thinking about the possibility of a Triple Crown. He looked like a horse who had something left in the tank for the Preakness two weeks hence.
For the trainer, it was the moment he had been awaiting throughout his 60-year career on the fringes on big-time racing. At 18, he came to the Derby on a railroad career with Swaps, for whom he was the exercise boy. Swaps, of course, won the Derby over the ballyhooed Nashua and went on to become one of the sport's all-time greats.
All week, Sherman kept saying, "I hope California Chrome is my Swaps." He was, indeed, and the victory made Sherman the oldest trainer ever to win the roses. Other sports may produce these kind of sweet stories, but thoroughbred racing produces more of them than any other endeavor.
It was a great day to be a septegenarian at Churchill Downs. Trust me on that. I didn't cash a lot of tickets, but I got something better than mere cash. I got to see greatness return to the Derby, and it was a lovely thing to behold.
322 Shipyard Boulevard