By J.J. Hysell
By most accounts, you would think California Chrome rolled into Churchill Downs a mythical hero about to be exposed.
Possibly the least-heralded favorite in the past 10 years of the Kentucky Derby, the California-bred inspired bewilderment, not amazement, among the masses gathered along the rail in the days leading up to the race.
“He’s not as big as I thought he was,” one onlooker said.
Another backstretch regular dismissed his chances like crumpling and tossing a hot dog wrapper. “It’s different here,” he said. “This isn’t Los Alamitos.”
The Los Alamitos he referenced, where California Chrome trained in the mornings, is a race course in California that is home to both Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing. It is a track that previously lingered in the shadows of mighty Santa Anita and the now defunct Hollywood Park in status.
Granted, the “Los Alamitos Legend” was built up to peerless standards by the West Coast pundits. They proclaimed the chestnut colt as a paragon of equine superiority. He was the spirit born of co-owner Steve Coburn’s dream and the inspiration from Swaps, the stallion of 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman’s youth, who was destined for distinction.
Coburn even called the Derby in California Chrome’s favor, in Joe Namath-like fashion, in the weeks leading up to May 3.
It seemed the reverence was mostly confined to the Golden State. California Chrome’s powerful aura evaporated with each passing mile once he shipped east. The story was too good to be true, some said, and his repertoire was picked apart: never raced outside of California, a cheap pedigree, ten career starts, and the trusty “Who did he beat?”
The most disparaged Derby favorite in recent memory was about to silence the peanut gallery and bring the inconceivable story to life.
With jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, the Los Alamitos Legend tracked the tepid pace, accelerated when asked and cruised home to become the first California-bred to wear the roses since Decidedly in 1962.
Even in afterglow, as the Preakness awaits, there remains an umbrella of skepticism. California Chrome’s final time of 2:03.66 for the 10 furlongs is the slowest over a fast track since 1974, thus earning him mediocre speed figures and ratings.
Some said his stellar performance paled in light of Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable; that was a race at nine furlongs with a field of 12 fillies. Others predict an easy trip for California Chrome in Baltimore, but he’ll be a bust at Belmont.
Mythical hero California Chrome, the Rodney Dangerfield of Derby winners, has yet to be exposed.