When the field of 19 headed for home in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) there seemed little doubt that betting favorite California Chrome was going to hit the wire first, and jockey Victor Espinoza posed for the picture with a triumphant arm in the air.
It was the colt’s fifth dominant win in a row, and this Derby winner has the look of an all-time great. In addition, he is a serious threat to win the Triple Crown.
Sure, we have heard it before. Just since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, we have seen a dozen horses head to the Belmont Stakes for a shot at Triple Crown glory and they all came up short.
While coming back in two weeks and winning the Preakness and then three weeks later going 1.5 miles in the Belmont Stakes is obviously a tall task, this colt has a chance to be an all-time great even if he falls short in his quest for one of the final two jewels of the Triple Crown.
Even if he comes up short at Pimlico or Belmont Park, he will prove his mettle later in the year in races like the Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
His brilliance first came to the forefront when he won the King Glorious and California Cup Derby by a combined 11.75 lengths, but because those races were restricted to state-breds, not many took notice. At that time OddsShark.com still had the colt listed at 60-1 in early Derby betting.
Steve Haskin of Bloodhorse.com was on board back on Feb. 3, stating in his "Derby Dozen" column, “I have not seen a three-year-old this year more impressive than this colt. I watched all his races and loved everything I saw, especially the visual improvement in his last two starts—whether they were against Cal-breds or not.“
Next up was the San Felipe (G2), a key prep for the Santa Anita Derby (G1), and the colt again dominated his competition, pulling away to win by 7.25 lengths and earn a career-best 108 Beyer Speed Figure, according to Daily Racing Form (subscription required).
Haskin immediately placed the colt at No. 1 on his "Derby Dozen" list on March 10, noting, “The simple fact is, this horse has run three flawless and brilliant races in a row and just keeps getting better.”
Flawless would best describe his Santa Anita Derby tour de force, with the colt rolling to a 5.25-length win, easily disposing of the highly regarded Hoppertunity and Candy Boy.
His 107 and 108 Beyers, via Daily Racing Form (subscription required), in his final two Derby preps stack up well against the last two three-year-olds that won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. I’ll Have Another came into the Derby off Beyers of 96 and 95 in his last two preps, while Big Brown earned back-to-back 106 Beyers in his final two preps before winning the Run for the Roses and Preakness.
Some may say the time of California Chrome’s Derby win (2:03.66) was slow. In the previous nine runnings, the only slower time was Super Saver, who stopped the clock in 2:04.45, but that was contested over a sloppy, sealed track.
However, the early fractions of the race were moderate by Derby standards, four furlongs in :47.37. That contributed to the slow time, as did the fact that California Chrome had the race won late, and Espinoza did not have to extend his mount late.
With owners in the industry spending millions of dollars looking for that Derby winner, it defies logic that a colt by sire Lucky Pulpit, who was best sprinting and stands for just a $2,500 stud fee, and out of a mare that broke her maiden for a modest $8,000 claiming tag would produce such a monster.
The colt has already outrun his pedigree, becoming the first California-bred to win the Derby in five decades, and his connections, known as "Dumb-Ass Partners," were smart enough to turn down a $6 million offer before the Derby.
Perhaps the racing gods will block his path on the way to the Triple Crown, but this colt has shown enough speed and talent to believe he will be dangerous throughout the year, which, if all goes well, will include a run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) this fall.
With horses running less and less over the past decade, this colt, along with his 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, is old-school. The Derby was his 11th career start, and he just looks better with each win.
Owner Steve Coburn isn't trying to temper expectations, saying via the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jane Patton, "Guardian angels have been watching over us and they put this horse on the right path. So, yeah, we'll see you all in Maryland. And then we'll see you all in New York. Yes. We're going. Why not? WHY NOT?"
While the Triple Crown is just so elusive, this colt is the front-runner for Horse of the Year. And if Sherman can keep him healthy and happy, this could be a horse for the ages.
Follow Michael Dempsey on Twitter @turfnsport