If you came to the 2014 Kentucky Derby looking for an underdog story, you got it. This one just doesn't quite fit the typical narrative.
California Chrome, a 2-1 pre-race favorite and perhaps the biggest Triple Crown threat since Big Brown in 2008, proved himself worth every bit of the hype at the 140th running at Churchill Downs. He defeated the field by 1.75 lengths, though that does little to properly contextualize the dominance of this performance.
Calmly resting in third-place throughout the early going, California Chrome kicked it into high gear to pass Chitu and Uncle Sigh and pulled far enough away that Victor Espinoza pumped the brakes for a victory fist pump at the end. Though second-place Commanding Curve put forth a spirited chase in the home stretch, California Chrome had already put a five-lengths cushion between himself and the field.
All that was left were the smiles, high-fives and hugs all around.
"I never felt in my dreams that I would win two Kentucky Derbies in my entire career…It was an awesome feeling," Espinoza told reporters.
California Chrome paid out $7.00, $5.60 and $4.20, making him one of the biggest favorites to win in history. According to ESPN Stats & Info, this was just the second time in the past three decades a horse at 5-2 or better odds went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
Behind the top two sat Danza and Wicked Strong, the two horses other than California Chrome to head into Saturday's race with single-digit odds. It was, from a numbers standpoint, one of the biggest favorite-heavy sweeps across the board. Given the propensity for bettors to overrate high-odds contenders in a chance to strike it rich quick, the bookmakers in Louisville won't have any trouble paying for their meals.
|1||5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman|
|2||17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart|
|3||4||Danza||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher|
|4||20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens|
|5||6||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette Jr.|
|6||12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani||Peter Eurton|
|7||19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel||Billy Gowan|
|8||14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale Romans|
|9||13||Chitu||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert|
|10||7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher|
|11||8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario||Mike Maker|
|12||16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher|
|13||18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens||John Sadler|
|14||3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.||Gary Contessa|
|15||15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.||Steve Asmussen|
|16||2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie||Mike Maker|
|17||9||Vinceremos||Joe Rocco Jr.||Todd Pletcher|
|18||10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez||Jose Garoffalo|
|19||1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker|
|WD||11||Hoppertunity||Mike Smith||Bob Baffert|
Oh. Right. You were looking for an underdog story.
Could I interest you in a 77-year-old trainer who had never entered a Kentucky Derby? Or a blue-collar ownership group who took horse racing so seriously they named their ownership group Dumb Ass Partners? Or maybe, how about a jockey who reached the pinnacle of his sport more than a decade ago and has been on a decline to anonymity ever since.
Well, allow California Chrome to reintroduce himself.
The California-bred horse is the product of Love the Chase, an almost entirely unheard-of mare bought by owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin in 2008. The cost was just $8,000. Keep in mind that high-priced ownership of these thoroughbreds goes well into the hundreds of thousands for even a mediocre athlete and well into the millions for Derby winners. They spent only $2,000 to breed Love the Chase with Lucky Pulpit.
If you're keeping track at home, that's $10,000 spent to produce the horse that just won $1,442,800 in Saturday's purse alone. Gonna throw this out there: NOT a bad return on your investment, Dumb Ass Partners. The fact that these two totally inexperienced owners could breed two entirely unheralded horses and come up with perhaps the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 is one of the more improbable stories in the sport's history.
Making it even more improbable was Art Sherman, the 77-year-old who became the oldest trainer in history to win a Kentucky Derby. Sherman, unassuming and well-respected throughout his long career, was an everyman's trainer. He did well enough to keep the lights on at his home, feed his family and lead a comfortable existence. But Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, Todd Pletcher he was decidedly not.
California Chrome was arguably his last shot. The unlikely trainer had taken the unlikely horse and turned him into a monolith. In winning his last four races prior to Saturday, California Chrome had won by an average of better than six lengths. While Espinoza's decision to pull up prevented a similar result at Churchill Downs, the group looked no less formidable, their grasp on the horse racing world no less strong.
"I didn't think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race," rival trainer Dale Romans told Tim Sullivan of USA Today. "And I was very, very wrong. Whether the crop's a good crop or not, that's a special horse.
The fact that Romans alludes to is perhaps the most promising for California Chrome going forward. His competition just isn't that good. Saturday's winning time of 2:03.66 was the slowest on a fast track since 1974, according to Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville. While horse racing hasn't evolved in the same fashion as races involving human beings, that's still telling.
The scratch of Hoppertunity, a 6-1 morning-line second favorite, certainly played a factor. But California Chrome has the best chance in recent memory because the game is rigged in his favor—in perhaps the greatest twist of irony. The stud with no pedigree, no major financial banking and a trainer with the heart of gold but resume of plastic has a chance to overcome it all and make history.
He got part one done Saturday. Let's see what he has coming next.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: