COMMENTARY

Stellar victory, even better story

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Get Hollywood on the line. Tell Steven Spielberg that horse racing is stirring with a story that could make America gaga about the game again.

A Kentucky Derby winner who outran 18 contenders as well as his ordinary pedigree. An unknown trainer who waited 77 years to saddle a horse in the Derby and then won the race. Owners who invested less money in their colt than racing's big shots spend tipping valet parking.

But, even better -- a horse with connections the game doesn't have to be ashamed of.

The colt's name is California Chrome. Remember it. Take the time to learn his story. You'll enjoy it. Promise.

California Chrome won the 140th Kentucky Derby by the prettiest 1¾ lengths you've seen. The colt crackles with so much energy that even trainers of the horses he beats are inspired to toss confetti.

"It's not just a good horse, it's a good movie," trainer Bob Baffert said. "That horse is a freak of nature. He's the real deal."

"I want to say one thing on the record," said Dale Romans, who trained Medal Count. "I didn't think California Chrome had any chance going into this race. I was very, very wrong.

"Whether this crop is a good crop or not, that's a special horse. Please put that out there for me. I was wrong. I was a very big skeptic. I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby.

"Now he has a fan. A big fan."

Get in line, Mr. Romans. California Chrome will be dragging a bandwagon of fans behind him to the Preakness in Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown in two weeks.

Why not? There's a reason solid horsemen like Romans were questioning the colt's credentials even though California Chrome was the 5-to-2 favorite in the Derby and had won his past four prep races.

Start with his pedigree. He was born in California. That's great for football or movie stars. But it's been a prime reason to dismiss a Derby contender. A colt bred in California had not won the Derby since 1962.

There was little in California Chrome's bloodlines to convince you this colt would be the first Cal-bred to deliver since Decidedly. His dam was an $8,000 mare. You can breed to his sire, Victory Pulpit, for $2,500, the most affordable stud fee for any sire who produced a colt in this Derby.

Then there is Sherman, the colt's miniature-sized but affable trainer. The previous time he came to the Kentucky Derby he was an exercise rider who made the four-day ride on the train from California with Swaps. That was 1955. Swaps won the race.

Sherman rode horses for 23 years and has trained them since 1980. Not that anybody outside of California had ever heard of him. He's no Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas. He was never close to having a Kentucky Derby horse.

Even this week skeptics wondered if Sherman was the right guy to handle a Kentucky Derby horse. They wondered why he never raced California Chrome outside of California and howled that he compromised his chances by never working the colt on the Churchill Downs track.

Sherman merely smiled. He smiles a lot. He's 77 and dedicated the win to his racetrack pals who are no longer alive.

"I knew my horse could run and I knew he'd be the horse to beat once we got him here," Sherman said.

Don't forget the owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. I'm sorry for the language but they call their stable the Dumbass Partners, complete with a jackass on the back of the signature purple silks.

How closely does Coburn watch his money?

His wife, Carolyn, said that he drives a 1988 pick-up truck with more than 500,000 miles on the odometer. Coburn refused to put a price on a dream. Several weeks ago Coburn turned down an offer of $6 million for 51 percent ownership of the colt.

"It wasn't tough for us to know," Coburn said. "We knew within our souls what kind of horse we had because we've seen him grow up."

The only thread in the story with legitimate Kentucky Derby connections was jockey Victor Espinoza. He won the Derby -- and the Preakness -- astride War Emblem in 2002.

Saturday, Espinoza rode California Chrome like he knew the surest route to the winner's circle. Breaking briskly from the No. 5 post position, Espinoza and California Chrome stalked pace-setters Uncle Sigh and Chitu for more than three-quarters of a mile.

When it was time for the real running to begin, California Chrome started moving the same powerful way he moved in the Santa Anita Derby and the other three prep races he won so easily on the West Coast.

He surged to the lead with about a quarter-mile to run, eased away to a five-length lead and danced to the finish. There was nothing inspiring about his winning time -- 2:03.66 -- but California Chrome's connections were having the time of their lives.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and television station WDRB in Louisville, Ky. Rick Bozich writes for WDRB.


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