John Clay: 'Chrome' has that Triple Crown shine

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 3, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — To paraphrase the popular rock song, the Kentucky Derby was California dreaming on such a summer's day.

There was so much talk about dreams before and after this glorious 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, do we dare now dream the impossible dream?

Do we dream of a Triple Crown?

Yes, we do.

Too soon? Not with this horse. Not this year. Not after the way California Chrome made it look so easy Saturday, stalking the pace from the perfect position, assuming the lead at the head of the lane then continuing on as if he were taking a jog on the beach to win the Derby by a length and three-quarters.

"He ran his eyeballs out," said trainer Art Sherman, a former jockey who, at 77, is now the oldest trainer ever to win the sport's most important race.

Watching the Derby unfold live on the rail and up on the track's new huge video board, it was as if you were watching a YouTube replay of California Chrome's 7¼-length win in the San Felipe or his 51/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

He was as good as advertised.

Which, of course, leads us to wonder whether horse racing has finally found the Thoroughbred special enough to do what no other Thoroughbred has done in 36 years.

Not to jinx it or anything, but this could be the one.

Co-owner Steve Coburn sure thinks so. Saturday's birthday boy — Coburn turned 61 — who had a prophetic dream about California Chrome three weeks before the colt was even born and now calls him his "dream child," believes we have now crossed from dreams to destiny.

"This colt was born on my sister Brenda's birthday, Feb. 18," said Coburn after the race, his raspy voice cracking with emotion. "She died of cancer at age 36. It will be 36 years this year since there has been a Triple Crown winner.

"I told people this colt would go down in history. And when the horse wins the Triple Crown, he'll be the first California-bred to win the Triple Crown. And that's where we're going."

California-bred was the biggest knock on California Chrome, of course. No Cal-bred had won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962. So as soon as the wheels touched down in Louisville from Los Angeles, the nit-picking began.

Chrome didn't look comfortable on the Churchill surface, claimed the trackside analysts. He wasn't getting over the surface well. He was out of his element. There were even Derby Day whispers the colt had come down with a cough thanks to the Kentucky air.

Oh well, never mind.

"I was very confident," Sherman said. "I've seen a lot of great horses and you know when you've got a good horse."

Unlike the horse's owners, the jockey has been down this road before. Victor Espinoza won the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard War Emblem before that Bob Baffert-trained speedster ran out of gas in the Belmont.

"I was telling Art, 'Now I have a lot of pressure,'" said Espinoza with a smile. "I've been there very close last time, one step away."

California Chrome isn't War Emblem. California Chrome is better than War Emblem.

"War Emblem, he was an amazing horse with one way to go," Espinoza said. "It was just front and lead, that was it. I just had to let him go in front. For this guy, I have a lot of options. He can go either way. He can go in front, in behind, doesn't matter. Makes my job a little bit easier."

It won't be easy, of course. If it were easy we would not be in the longest Triple Crown drought in racing history, dating to Affirmed in 1978.

Winning the Triple Crown has proven to be easily the most difficult task in all of sports.

And California Chrome may have been Sherman's first Kentucky Derby horse, but the wise old horseman has been around long enough to know the degree of difficulty.

He was the exercise rider on 1955 Kentucky Derby champion Swaps, after all.

So what did the trainer think when he heard his co-owner predicting Triple Crown?

"I'm not saying anything now. He's got a dream," said Sherman as he threw his head back with a laugh. "I want to tell you something. California Chrome is the rock star, I'm his manager, and I'm going all the way."

Finally, fingers crossed, horse racing might just have the horse that goes all the way.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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