Billy Reed's Derby Diary: Saturday, May 3 - WECT, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Billy Reed's Derby Diary: Saturday, May 3

by Billy Reed
WAVE 3 News Contributor

A few hours before the 140th Kentucky Derby, Iinterviewed jockey Victor Espinoza for WAVE 3 News in Louisville. He had justwon the third race at Churchill Downs aboard Masochistic, but I didn't want totalk about that. I wanted to ask him about California Chrome, the favorite hewould ride in the Derby.

Although the colt had won his last four races by more than23 lengths combined, and although he had romped over his field in the SantaAnita Derby, he had hardly convinced all the media wise guys who cover horseracing in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas and even California.

A lot of them said he wouldn't hit the board. Theyquestioned his pedigree, his toughness, and his competition. His dam once soldfor $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 Louisvilleuntil 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 whenI asked him if he expected California Chrome to produce a performance soimpressive that Derby lovers will be talking about it for years to come.

"This is California Chrome's day," he told me. "This is hisbiggest race and he will show what kind of horse he is."

The weather was about as good as it gets on the firstSaturday in May in Louisville, Ky. When post time for the Derby finally rolledaround at 6:32 p.m., a few minutes late, the second largest crowd in the race'shistory had resoundingly rejected the critics by making California Chrome the2-to-1 favorite in the field of 19, making him one of the shortest-pricedfavorites in recent years.

When the starting gate finally broke open and the fieldbarreled down the stretch for the first time, California Chrome was perfectlyplaced just behind the leaders. And then, as the race unfolded, all thepretenders began falling by the wayside until, at the top of the stretch, thiscopper-colored colt surged to the lead and made the Derby his.

It has been so long since racing has had a Triple Crownwinner – Affirmed in 1978 was the last – that today's racing fans are desperatefor a superhorse to call their own. Every year, they hope to see the newCitation, Secretariat, or Seattle Slew. And every year for the last couple ofdecades – 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 byeveryone except Chrome's fans as a wide-open, impossible-to-handicap Derby, thebig colt completed a thoroughly professional trip by drawing off to a victorythat left the doubters choking on their Daily Racing Forms. The time for themile and a quarter was a modest 2:03 and change, but so what? The brilliance ofthe performance was what mattered.

At the end, the only colt running at the leader wasCommanding Curve, who gave trainer Dallas Stewart his second consecutive Derbyrunner-up finish with a colt that was doubtful to make the field until a weekbefore the race (last year's runner-up was Golden Soul).

The third-place horse, Danza, named for the actor, did notrun back to his romp in the Arkansas Derby, but ran credibly for Pletcher andjockey Joe Bravo. But everybody else was Out Shelby, an old Louisville phrasefor somebody who's a hopeless loser.

None of the most-discussed scenarios materialized. CalvinBorel did not come up the rail with Ride On Curlin. Rosie Napravnik did notthreaten to become the first female jockey to win the Derby. Medal Count didnot look like the best horse that Dale Romans has ever trained. IntenseHoliday, General a Rod, and Harry's Holiday were not good enough to make theirowners the first Louisvillians to win the Derby since 1914.

Wicked Strong, named in honor of the Boston Marathonsurvivors, and Uncle Sigh, whose owner donates part of his earnings to theWounded 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 becausethey 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, wherenobody cares about the Cats and the Cards.)

Nope, this Derby was strictly a one-horse show. The besthorse not only won, he dominated, and it is not premature to begin thinkingabout the possibility of a Triple Crown. He looked like a horse who hadsomething left in the tank for the Preakness two weeks hence.

For the trainer, it was the moment he had been awaitingthroughout his 60-year career on the fringes on big-time racing. At 18, he cameto 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 tobecome one of the sport's all-time greats.

All week, Sherman kept saying, "I hope California Chrome ismy Swaps." He was, indeed, and the victory made Sherman the oldest trainer everto win the roses. Other sports may produce these kind of sweet stories, butthoroughbred 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 betterthan mere cash. I got to see greatness return to the Derby, and it was a lovelything to behold.

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