RedEye

California Chrome is regally bound for Kentucky Derby

The morning awaited royalty.

It was 8 a.m., and the Saturday sun had just begun to dry the puddles from Friday's rain and add some sparkle to the infield lakes at Los Alamitos Race Course.

Along the grandstand fence, they gathered, perhaps as many as 200 people. Many had cameras. More had goose bumps.

California Chrome would be making an appearance soon, his last workout before flying off Monday to thoroughbred racing fame and fortune. At least that is the hope of so many in the Southern California racing community.

He will be the favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby in Louisville.

That is because he has won his last four races by a total of 24 1/4 lengths. He won the April 5 Santa Anita Derby like somebody rolling out of bed and warming up with a yawn and a quick stretch. Other jockeys urge and whip their horses down the homestretch. California Chrome's Victor Espinoza ends races half-standing in the saddle, looking lonely.

There is already talk that Chrome is the Triple Crown savior the sport thinks it needs and has gone without since Affirmed in 1978. Part of that is a horse lover's disease known as wishful thinking that becomes contagious each April. Another part is that this regal-looking chestnut really seems to have what it takes. And having what it takes to win three huge races in three states in five weeks is no small feat.

That's a lot to put on an athlete who only passed his third birthday Feb. 18. Also an athlete who would become only the fourth California-bred colt to win the Derby, which will be running for the 140th time. The other three are Morvich in 1922, Swaps in 1955 and Decidedly in 1962.

Trainer Art Sherman, who at 77 would break Charlie Whittingham's record by a year as the oldest Derby-winning trainer were California Chrome to shine as expected, doesn't temper the expectations.

"This horse is one of those who has a deep, deep desire to run," he said Saturday morning.

Espinoza was briefer, but no less enthusiastic. Nor are there many more qualified to assess things. He is 42, won his 3,000th race last year and has been in five Kentucky Derbies, winning in 2002 aboard War Emblem.

Asked to identify the ingredient that separates California Chrome from the other greats he has ridden, Espinoza said, "Talent."

And so, on this majestic morning, the wait for His Highness only added to the growing lore.

The new dirt track at Los Alamitos was raked smooth. TV cameras were poised for a live telecast. Other horses were ushered back to their stalls. Kings don't work in traffic, especially after a recent incident at the track in which a horse got loose during a California Chrome training run and scooted past. One observer said that California Chrome took note of the stray, but just refocused and went back to work.

As a precaution, track owner Ed "Doc" Allred ordered an exclusive training time window henceforth for his star boarder.

So, exclusive it was, Saturday morning.

All eyes turned to the top of the stretch as California Chrome, with Espinoza up, and a companion horse, started a slow jog that turned into a solo four-furlong work at around 48 seconds. Espinoza never urged, never asked, just kind of held on.

California Chrome was, as always, thoroughbred poetry in motion. Nothing wasted. Nothing strained. No lack of focus, but a sense of joy at the dash of wind created by his own effortless speed.

Sherman, a dapper little man who hasn't stopped smiling since owners/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin sent him the horse with a "road-to-the-Derby" plan, said, "California Chrome is a rock star and I'm his manager."

Sherman is not without Kentucky Derby experience, even though this will be his first time as a trainer. At 18, he was the exercise rider for the legendary Swaps, and he went along for the 1955 Derby victory.

"A lot of things have changed," Sherman said. "Back then, it took three days on a train. Now, I'm there in 3 1/2 hours on a plane."

Another change is the stampede start. Swaps defeated nine horses. The Derby now allows 20 horses in the Churchill Downs starting gate. In some ways, that makes the day of the post-position draw almost as important as the race itself. The dread, for most connections of Derby horses, is an inside or near-inside post. Many top-flight horses, including recently Lookin At Lucky, get squeezed down and blocked at the start with a near-rail post position. Lookin At Lucky went off as the favorite in the 2010 Derby and had to run around lots of horses just to come home sixth. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness.

Espinoza said that he had more confidence in a horse such as California Chrome to navigate from an inside post. Sherman said he was hoping for something in the middle.

"I've always had good success," he said, "in anywhere from the 8-to-10 post."

California Chrome's total time on the track was perhaps 10 minutes. But that seemed to be enough to make everybody happy, and confident that, with decent racing luck, a Kentucky coronation awaits.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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