In almost every respect but one, California Chrome’s victory in the Kentucky Derby was satisfying and heart-warming, a triumph for the little guy that fans and the media always relish.
The colt’s co-owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, are so self-effacing that they dubbed their modest racing operation “Dumbass Partners” and feature a donkey on their racing silks. Trainer Art Sherman, 77, was asked a thousand times to retell the story of how he rode to Louisville in a railroad boxcar with Swaps for the 1955 Derby. He had waited nearly six decades for his chance to come to Churchill Downs as a trainer.
And while Derby winners are frequently overhyped as rags-to-riches stories, no colt in decades has been such an improbable winner as California Chrome. His sire stood at stud for a $2,500 fee; his dam’s only victory came in a maiden $8,000 claiming race; his dam’s dam scored her lone career win at Charles Town. Based on pedigree, California Chrome was more likely to wind up at a track like Charles Town than on the biggest stage in American racing.
Most racing fans love this saga, and they may be unfazed by a winning time of 2 minutes 3.66 seconds, which was the slowest over a track labeled “fast” since 1974. This slow time is not merely an indication the current crop of 3-year-olds is subpar; it can be seen as an indictment of the modern American thoroughbred.
The slowness of the Derby creates an intriguing story line for the Triple Crown series. The most impressive 3-year-old at Churchill Downs was neither California Chrome nor any of his 18 rivals in the Derby. It was the filly Untapable, who delivered a dazzling performance in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. She would be a formidable entrant in the Preakness — except trainer Steve Asmussen is disinclined to run.
California Chrome looked like a bona fide star when he came to Churchill Downs after winning four straight races in the West by big margins. He was clearly the most accomplished horse in the Derby field and was justifiably a solid favorite, though there were two legitimate questions about him. Because he typically races on or near the early lead, would the usual hot pace in the Derby compromise him? And would he be able to go 11 / 4 miles?
When the gate opened, none of the jockeys aboard front-running types were inclined to go on a suicide mission. Chitu and Uncle Sigh vied for the early lead, but they set a sensible pace. “Everybody slowed down,“ said California Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza. “I was [thinking], ‘This is going great.’ And from the stands, Sherman thought, “All right, Victor, you’re in a perfect spot; just cool it — wait.”
In the previous two Derbies, the first half mile was run in 45.39 and 45.33 seconds, and the sizzling pace took a toll on the leaders. On Saturday, Uncle Sigh covered the distance in 47.37 seconds, an honest pace, and California Chrome was indeed in the perfect spot, sitting just outside the leaders.
Meanwhile, a number of his rivals were having difficult trips. The field was not strung out the way it was in 2012 and 2013, enabling most of the runners to secure a decent position by the time they had reached the first turn. The field Saturday was more tightly bunched, creating problems for many of the horses behind California Chrome. Intense Holiday was parked five-wide much of the way. Wicked Strong, after breaking from post 19, could not get close to the rail at the first turn. Candy Boy had a disastrous trip, getting squeezed back sharply at the first turn.
As the field rounded the final turn, California Chrome shot to the lead and seized command. To the eye, this looked like the type of bold move with which great horses such as Unbridled and Spectacular Bid have captured the Derby. But it was an illusion. California Chrome wasn’t accelerating; his rivals were fading. The winner covered the final quarter mile in a slow 26.21 seconds and crossed the finish line in a time that translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 97 — the lowest ever for either a Derby or Preakness.
In recent years, the speed figures for the Belmont Stakes have been low by historical standards, and the most logical explanation is that U.S. breeders don’t try to produce horses capable of running 11 / 2 miles. A similar explanation might now be offered for the Derby: Few horses are bred to run 11 / 4 miles. Certainly, California Chrome isn’t. His sire never won a race beyond 51 / 2 furlongs. He excelled at 11 / 8 miles in the Santa Anita Derby, but that extra furlong makes the Derby a whole different game.
The Derby runner-up, Commanding Curve, may have been one of the few in the field capable of going 11 / 4 miles effectively. He has never won anything but a slow maiden race, but the 37-1 shot rallied in the final furlong to finish only 13 / 4 lengths behind California Chrome.
The weakness of the Derby stood in sharp contrast to the Oaks. Untapable delivered a performance that was brilliant by any standard of measurement. She demolished a strong field of fillies to win by 41 / 2 lengths, and she ran 11 / 8 miles in 1:48.68, the second-fastest time in the race’s history, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. Her effort was similar to the Oaks victory of the great Rachel Alexandra, who went on to be voted the horse of the year in 2009.
Asmussen trained Rachel Alexandra, who went from the Oaks to the Preakness and scored a memorable victory over the best males of her generation. However, he says he is not going to take that path with Untapable. After speaking to owner Ron Winchell, he said, “We didn’t feel it was in her best interest to run back in two weeks.” If he examines the way the Derby was run, he ought to change his mind.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.