LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Moments after California Chrome hit the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, with his rider standing triumphantly in the irons and 165,000 people at Churchill Downs roaring in approval, a voice from my childhood came back to me.
At some point decades ago, I had heard a recording of sportscaster Clem McCarthy’s call of the legendary Citation winning the 1948 Derby, and his words during the stretch run that day rang in my ears now: “He’s everything they said he was.” It was a moment of great expectations fulfilled, Citation pulling away from his overmatched rivals en route to a sweep of the Triple Crown.
The big horse from California lived up to his billing on Saturday too. Chrome may have none of the blue-blooded pedigree or royal Kentucky upbringing that Citation had, but he can run.
When he rounded the turn shoulder-to-shoulder with three other front-runners in the Derby, cruising effortlessly under a confident Victor Espinoza, it was clear something special was about to happen.
Then, as they turned for home, Espinoza gave the horse his cue, nothing more than a flick of the wrist to tap him on the right shoulder with the stick, a kind of “it’s go time” command, followed by a shake of the reins. Within a matter of seconds, Chrome had darted away to a five-length lead and the race was over.
This was a devastatingly easy victory.
Don’t be fooled by the final margin, 1 3/4 lengths, or the slow time, a shade over 2 minutes and 3 seconds for the 1 1/4- mile (2 kilometers) race. Espinoza only really asked the horse to run for an eighth of a mile or so, easing off the pressure at the end once a peek over the shoulder confirmed the rest had been left in his wake.
And don’t be fooled by those who will tell you that Chrome benefited from an easy race set-up, traveling comfortably just behind a group of leaders who were setting a pedestrian early pace. That’s the same talk we heard in some circles after his runaway victory in the Santa Anita Derby in April.
They fail to acknowledge that it is a rare thoroughbred that has both the brilliant speed needed to establish a good position out of harm’s way early in the race and the temperament to then settle into a relaxed, energy-saving beat as the front- runners slow the pace down. (To see a prime example of a rank, hard-to-handle horse, watch No. 16, Intense Holiday, in the yellow cap, tug away at his rider as the Derby field passes in front of the stands the first time).
So it’s on to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore in two weeks. If you, like me, were a bit leery about betting on Chrome at 5-2 in the Derby, a price that made him the heaviest favorite since 2008, you certainly won’t like his odds in the Preakness after this romp.
My initial guess would be to flip the two numbers around and make him 2-5 on May 17 (meaning a $5 wager would produce a $2 profit if he wins). I won’t be betting on him at that price, but I’ll certainly be rooting for him.
It’s hard not to love this chestnut colt with the big white blaze down his face. Between his dirt-cheap pedigree, hard- scrabble upbringing in California and the humble everyman qualities of his trainer and owners (is it me or is Steve Coburn a dead ringer for Teddy Roosevelt, our folksy 26th president?), Chrome is a great American story.
And in the chapter written Saturday, on horseracing’s biggest stage, in front of the second-largest crowd in the Kentucky Derby’s 140-year history, he was everything they said he would be.