LOUISVILLE, Ky. — His mother cost a mere $8,000 and his father performed for a modest stud fee of $2,000.
That $10,000 investment — minuscule by elite racing standards — produced California Chrome, who had won $1.135 million even before he became the official favorite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby on Wednesday.
His charmed run continued in the afternoon post-position draw, where California Chrome drew the No. 5 spot. Earlier in the day, co-owner Steve Coburn had said he was hoping for a starting spot between No. 6 and No. 10, but a near miss wasn’t bad.
“I think it’s a perfect spot,” said trainer Art Sherman. “I think if we break clean, he’ll get out of a lot of trouble.”
Jockey Victor Espinoza quickly deemed the spot lucky No. 5. “I have a lot of options,” he said, assessing the field.
Longtime Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia agreed, installing California Chrome as the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the 140th Derby. Those odds peg him as one of the stronger pre-race favorites from recent years, no surprise given the chestnut colt’s dominance in prep races. By comparison, Orb was a 7-2 morning-line favorite last year.
The expected second choice, Wicked Strong, received a much less favorable draw at No. 20. The extreme outside starting spot caused Battaglia to drop the New York colt to an 8-1 third choice. On the bright side, Big Brown won from the No. 20 post in 2008 and Orb won from No. 16 last year. Both were late closers akin to Wicked Strong, trained by Jimmy Jerkens.
“I’m trying to convince myself that it’s not a bad post,” Jerkens said. “But I don’t know if I can.”
Bob Baffert’s colt Hoppertunity vaulted over Wicked Strong to become the second choice at 6-1. He’ll start from the No. 11 post. Many regard Hoppertunity as a potential sleeping giant because he ran well against California Chrome at the Santa Anita Derby without jockey Mike Smith pushing him down the stretch.
“The one disadvantage is that Hoppertunity is going to have to wait in the gate for a long time,” Baffert said. “But I’d rather wait in the 11-hole than in the 1-hole.”
Danza, one of Todd Pletcher’s four entries, is the fourth choice at 10-1. That represents a massive upgrade from the Arkansas Derby, where Danza shocked the racing world by beating a stacked field as a 41-1 underdog.
Pletcher was satisfied with the No. 4 post drawn by Danza. “It was good,” he said. “He drew an inside spot at the Arkansas Derby, and I was happy enough with this. … He has some experience from inside, so I don’t think it’s a big disadvantage. “
Pletcher also trains the fifth choice, Intense Holiday, at 12-1. “I like that,” he said of the horse’s No. 16 starting spot. “I think it gives (jockey) John (Velazquez) a chance to sort things out.”
The one spot no one seemed to want was No. 1, drawn by Vicar’s in Trouble, who finished second in the race for Derby qualifying points behind California Chrome.
Trainer after trainer described how difficult it is to fight from the rail to the middle in a 20-horse field.
Vicar’s in Trouble’s jockey, Rosie Napravnik, who will try to become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, acknowledged she was startled by the draw. But she quickly put a positive spin on the situation.
“There’s been plenty of winners out of there, so Vicar’s not in trouble yet,” Napravnik said, demonstrating her aptitude for puns.
She won’t be the only one shooting for a milestone on Saturday. If Sherman guides California Chrome to victory, he’ll become the oldest Derby-winning trainer at 77. Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, also a Californian, won at age 76.
Sherman couldn’t help thinking back 59 years to the last time he was involved in the Derby. He was a low-ranking stable hand for the great Swaps, who won at Churchill Downs.
“Swaps had No. 7,” he said, recalling the long-ago draw. “So, we’re not too far away.”
It was an ebullient day for the favorite’s attachments. Coburn, sporting a wide cowboy hat, happily told the media he’d predicted a victory for the colt he shares with partner Perry Martin.
“With a good break and a clean trip, I think it’s a done deal,” he said.
“That’s what I have right here,” he added, pointing to his heart.
Analysts pointed to California Chrome’s penchant for difficult starts as his one potential weakness. Sherman plans to have his horse stand in the starting gates at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning. But he said practice won’t necessarily mitigate any nerves arising at race time. He and Espinoza both agreed an awkward start could be their horse’s greatest obstacle.
If Sherman felt any unease from occupying the favorite’s chair, however, he didn’t show it. Asked his plans for the rest of the week, he said, “I’m going to go to the parties, relax and have a good time.”