The Victory of California Chrome and the Magic of the Derby

Tim Layden
LOUISVILLE — This is what a horse can do on the first Saturday in May: He can make three grown men dance under a setting sun on a famous racetrack, spinning little circles in the dust, tears rolling down their cheeks. He can make a 77-year-old trainer think about dear friends who passed away long ago and embrace the improbable gift of such a success so late in life. He can make an injured jockey, his body and brain still bruised from a terrible spill, climb on a same-day flight to see his little brother ride in and win the most important horse race in the world; and then he can make that little brother cry just thinking about those less fortunate than he is. He can make two rookie owners — one a loquacious cowboy with a lucky 10-year-old hat and the other a reserved businessman who brought his 83-year-old mother to Churchill Downs for the race (and supported her fragile body from a spot on the rail) — smarter than all of racing’s sheikhs and barons, and all of its hedge fund heroes and hustlers, at half the cost of a Prius.

He can make a sport breathe.

And they say this horse should never have been born. They say Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, the smallest of small-time horsemen, should never have paid $8,000 for a slow filly with a nervous streak who won just a single race in her brief career, and should never have paid another $2,000 to breed her to a 10-year-old stallion who never beat anybody in a race longer than a sprint. They say the resulting baby horse should never have developed into a breathtaking thoroughbred machine who from December to April won four consecutive races by more than 24 lengths (and when he did, Coburn and Martin absolutely should not have turned down $6 million for 51 percent interest). And they say that even after he did those things, he should have never have flown across the country and won the Kentucky Derby.

But that is the beauty of the horse and the singular magic of the Derby, where each year a troubled sport lugs a truckload of controversy and desperation into Louisville and finds itself inevitably rescued for a week or a day or an hour by a racehorse and his tale.

Late Saturday afternoon it was California Chrome who flashed past the twin spires of Churchill Downs to win the 140th Kentucky Derby by 1 ¾ lengths over Commanding Curve, putting the finishing touches on one of the most unlikely and remarkable runs in modern Derby history. His victory, in front of 164,096 spectators (the second-largest crowd in Derby history), was the first by a California-bred horse since Decidedly’s in 1962; and his trainer, Art Sherman, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby (Charlie Whittingham was 76 when Sunday Silence won the Derby in 1989). Those nuggets are only the appetizers.

It was an utterly dominant performance not accurately measured by the final margin; California Chrome drew out to a five-length lead with less than an eighth of a mile to run before jockey Victory Espinoza geared him down, rising in the irons two strides before the wire and waving his crop in the air, much as he had done aboard War Emblem 12 years ago.

Piled on top of the colt’s four laughably easy wins in California, the victory was they type that steered post-race interviews in a familiar direction. “I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown,” said co-owner Steve Coburn, who shies from neither guarantees nor dreams. No horse has won the Triple Crown in 36 years, since Affirmed in 1978, and the racing game has lusted to end that drought for the cleansing buzz that it might bring. The next test comes in Baltimore on May 17, in the Preakness at Pimlico.

It is rare that the Kentucky Derby unfolds precisely as a favorite would plan. Such is the nature of a contest that asks 3-year-old colts (teenagers) to run 1 ¼ miles (further than any of them have run) in a 19-horse field (more than any of them have faced, or will ever face again) in front of so many emotional spectators. Some railbirds had shied from picking California Chrome to win because he had easily avoided traffic in his pre-Derby winning streak. He drew post position five, surrounded by horses that would gun to the lead and could shuffle him back into a hopeless position. “I think everybody was hoping [California Chrome] would break a step slow and the speed would swallow him and get him in trouble,” said Rick Violette, trainer of fifth-place finisher Samraat.

Enter Espinoza. Last December, after California Chrome had won just two of his first six races, Sherman switched from rider Alberto Delgado to Espinoza. The trainer and the jockey were acquainted, having met nearly two decades ago, when Espinoza was a young rider and Sherman a veteran trainer in northern California. Espinoza, 41, had seen California Chrome’s early races. “There was something about that horse, I just liked him,” says Espinoza. When Sherman called, Espinoza was stunned at his luck. “That horse?” he asked his agent. “Art Sherman’s horse? Yes, I want to ride that horse.”

So on Saturday, after those four straight wins and as the 5-2 favorite in the Derby, Espinoza pushed California Chrome cleanly out of the gate. He nearly made the lead. “For a second, I almost made the decision to go to the front,” said Espinoza. Instead, the one-dimensional Uncle Sigh (to his left) and Chitu (to his right) went past and Espinoza eased California Chrome into a perfect position, two wide into the first turn. He stalked the leaders down the backstretch through a half mile in a modest 47.37 seconds, and three-quarters in 1:11.80, also not especially fast. Entering the final turn, Samraat attacked California Chrome as Chitu and Uncle Sigh began to yield.

Espinoza sat chilly only for a couple of strides before turning Chrome loose. “As soon as [California Chrome] was asked,” said Samraat’s jockey, Jose Ortiz, “He took off. He’s a nice horse.”

Said Violette: “He brought his California race to Kentucky. No doubt about it.”

Espinoza was in the clear when the field turned for home, to the roaring approval of a crowd that had bet him heavily. Prior to the Derby, Espinoza had used his whip on California Chrome in just one race (the San Felipe Stakes in March) and on Saturday he struck him just twice, righthanded. “He impressed the hell out of me,” said Dallas Stewart, trainer of 37-1 longshot Commanding Curve, the runner-up. In the week before to the race, Stewart had noted that Chrome seemed uncomfortable training on the Churchill Downs surface. “I held that against him,” said Stewart. “I was wrong.” The final time of 2:03.66 was the slowest since Super Saver in 2010.

It was only as California Chrome cruised under the wire that the emotions began pouring out. Assistant trainer Alan Sherman, groom Raul Rodriguez and exercise rider William Delgado had watched the race while standing just inside the outer rail. As Chrome ran past the trio, they leaped into the air, screaming, and then as Chrome ran under the wire they wrapped their arms around each other and danced across the track like little children. A security officer tried to pull them out of the middle of the loamy surface.

It was Delgado who had galloped California Chrome in the predawn sessions Derby week, and who had heard the criticism of the horse’s appearance. “People say things to make themselves feel better,” said Delgado. “I let this horse do what he wants to do. If he wants to hop and skip around, I let him do that. There was nothing wrong with this horse.”

Delgado jogged California Chrome early on Derby morning. “He was a beast,” said Delgado. “He was so on the muscle.” Hours later, when Chrome was led to the paddock for Derby saddling, both Delgado and Rodriguez held him, which they have never done previously (usually it’s only Rodriguez). “We had to have two of us,” said Delgado, whose is also the brother of Alberto, the rider displaced by Espinoza last winter.

Among the multitudes who watched Espinoza’s masterful ride was his older brother, Jose, 44. A year ago Jose, a journeyman rider with 856 career wins, rode in his first Kentucky Derby, finishing 10th on Giant Finish. But last August, Jose was badly hurt in a spill at Saratoga Race Course, suffering brain trauma, in addition to a broken collarbone, broken nose and other facial injuries.

In the aftermath of the spill, Jose withdrew from racing altogether, keeping to his home on Long Island. But on April 5, Jose turned on his television to watch the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby, both major Derby prep races. “I was watching the Santa Anita Derby, and I saw that my brother is riding the favorite [California Chrome],” said Jose on Saturday. “I thought, Wow. Then I watched the race, and saw Victor ride such a great race on that horse, and I called him and I told him, `You’re going to win the Kentucky Derby, and you’re going to just gallop.'”

Still, Jose didn’t decide to come to Louisville until 11 p.m. on the night before the Derby. He took a morning flight from New York, checked into a hotel, changed his clothes and arrived at Churchill Downs only two hours before the race. “No matter how I feel,” said Jose. “I wanted to be here to see my brother in the winner’s circle.”

Victor, meanwhile, embraced his victory while remembering the pressure of 12 years ago, when he rode the ornery, one-dimensional War Emblem to a Derby win. He also broke down in tears during the post-race press conference while talking about his association with City of Hope children’s cancer hospital in Los Angeles. He said donates 10 percent of his earnings to City of Hope (which means he would be giving the organization $6,000 from his Derby victory), but he also said, “Many of the days when I go there, I can’t even walk inside because I feel so terrible for those children.”

It was at that same press conference that Coburn — who works for a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and hotel room keys — expressed his amazement at all that has happened to him and his partner, Perry Martin, who owns a company that tests metal products. Martin, who ducks the spotlight (he took six days to call back Sports Illustrated for this feature on California Chrome, just to confirm basic biographical details). Martin watched the race alongside his 83-year-old mother, Catherine, who drove to Louisville the day before the race with Martin’s brother. Moments after the race, Martin stood virtually speechless on the track, choosing silence over the tears he was fighting.

And then there is Sherman. It became part of this year’s narrative that Sherman first came to the Derby in 1955, as an 18-year-old stablehand for Swaps, who won that Derby and is regarded as one of the best horses in racing history. A year later, Sherman became Swaps’s regular exercise rider, and embarked on a 23-year riding career.

Two weeks ago Sherman sat sipping a cup of hot coffee in the track kitchen at Los Alamitos Race Course, the converted quarter horse track in Southern California where Chrome prepped for the Derby. He talked about living through his early 20s in barn tack rooms in Florida, New York, California and Chicago, with barely more than a bed. His neighbors were horses. “I had my own little fridge, a hot plate, I fixed those tack rooms up nice,” said Sherman. “It was a way of life for a young kid. I liked it.”

He talked about riding with some of the greatest jockeys in the history of the game, and about how he sometimes beat them out of purse money during card games in the jocks’ rooms. He talked about the years flying by, and about how he stays young by going to work every morning. “I’ve had a great life,” he said. “But so many of those people I knew are gone now, and I never expected to have a horse like this.”

He spoke similar words later, in the fading light of a Saturday night in Kentucky. “I think they’re all watching over me,” he said. “I’m so thankful that I’m here.” He smile at memories from far away, and memories that were just minutes old.

And here in this place, on this day, that is what a horse can do.