The 2014 Kentucky Derby
Horse racing has seen plenty of underdogs throughout its history, and seeing a Thoroughbred beat the odds is a moment that never gets old no matter how many times it is repeated. During the winter and spring of 2014, there was one horse that was simultaneously staking his claim as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby while maintaining his status as a plucky underdog.
Before making his three year old debut, California Chrome had already made history for himself when he captured the King Glorious Stakes the previous December. That was the last stakes race to be run at Hollywood Park, and it capped off a year that saw Chrome win the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar while also finishing off the board in some other stakes, including the Grade I Del Mar Futurity. However, he did not lose by a lot of lengths in either contest, so it would have been logical to believe that Chrome had potential as a three year old.
The Art Sherman trainee did not disappoint as a sophomore, winning the California Cup Derby, Grade II San Felipe Stakes, and Grade I Santa Anita Derby to make himself the favorite for the Run For the Roses. Chrome's performances and story captivated the sport. He did not come from a regal pedigree, and was not bred to win routing. The fact that he was a California bred added to his popularity in the Golden State, and he was drawing some similarities to another horse born in California about six decades earlier: Swaps.
Both horses possessed chestnut coats, and each one loved to run and win races. Part of this story was Sherman, who had been an exercise rider for Swaps during the champion's heyday in the 1950s. Now, Sherman, who at the time was seventy-seven years old, was getting to experience what Swaps's trainer, Mesh Tenney, had nearly six decades prior.
Chrome's owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, also added to the saga. Their stable was small, and they found a horse with talent and heart. It could remind one of Snow Chief almost three decades earlier. Snow Chief, the winner of the 1986 Preakness Stakes, was owned by Carl Grinstead and Ben Rochelle. The two men did not operate a large stable, and they owned a horse who had accomplished far more than what his immediate pedigree would have indicated.
After winning the Santa Anita Derby, Chrome was sent to Churchill Downs, where he became the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Despite his good record during the prep season, the popular horse was facing some obstacles. First, it had been questioned whether Chrome could get the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. Although he had already won at routes of one mile or longer, Chrome was not bred to run ten furlongs. Second, it had been many years (fifty-two, to be exact) since a California bred had won the big race (Decidedly won the 1962 renewal), and Morvich (1922) and Swaps (1955) were the only other Derby champions to have been born in the Golden State. Chrome, simply put, had nineteen horses and the past to take on as he made his way to the starting gate for the 140th Kentucky Derby.
After the gates opened, Chrome ran up to contend for the early lead, but soon backed away while staying close to pacesetters Uncle Sigh and Chity going into the clubhouse turn and the backstretch. It was easy to spot the purple silks and green helmet worn by Victor Espinoze, and Chrome had his rivals well within his sight. He was not letting them move far ahead.
Chrome chased a moderate pace as he moved down the Churchill Downs backstretch, looking and traveling well as he and Espinoza let the leaders duel up front. As the Kentucky Derby moved into the second turn, the duo made their move, going up to challenge Uncle Sigh and Chitu for the lead with Samraat on the outside. When they straightened in the frontstretch, Chrome had the lead and began charging home. Espinoza urged him, and in a brief couple of seconds, Chrome was the clear leader as a collective roar could be heard at Churchill Downs.
As the Kentucky Derby reached its final seconds, the underdog was inching closer towards the most prestigous race in the sport. Commanding Curve tried to make up ground to get to the wire, but it was Chrome's day. He made history by becoming the fourth California bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, and at the same time earned a chance to move forward with a chance to win the Triple Crown.
Back home in California, Chrome's fans were thrilled. They loved seeing their local hero, their state hero, go to Louisville and defeat his rivals to become the latest Derby champion.
In that moment, Chrome assured himself legendary status in the annals of California racing, and everyone that watched him was reminded that an underdog can overcome the odds and win.