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California Chrome basks in limelight

California Chrome is the center of attention going into Kentucky Derby 140 (Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com)
Racing has itself a Rock Star. He's California Chrome, who on Saturday started on the path of legends, winning the Santa Anita Derby in breathtaking fashion, overpowering seven rivals, including well-regarded stakes winners Hoppertunity and Candy Boy. He was all but eased up at the end of a mile and an eighth, floating home by 5 1/4 lengths under a nonchalant Victor Espinoza.

Call it Superman compared to Clark Kent.

It was bedlam in the winner's circle, replete with TV cameras, photographers, social media groupies, traditional media, autograph seekers and assorted hangers-on, but both horse and trainer survived the well-intentioned ordeal.

The national, yea, international, spotlight grows ever larger now as trainer Art Sherman prepares California Chrome for racing's biggest stage, the 140th Kentucky Derby on May 3.

Although off a bit slowly and crowded early, California Chrome battled longshot Dublin Up and second choice Candy Boy for the lead until the quarter-pole, then took off like a Jet, exploding to finish "under a long hold late," according to Mike Schneider and Ken Davis of Equibase. His time for nine furlongs was 1:47.52, second-fastest in 77 runnings of the race.

"It was nice, huh," said Espinoza, basking among well-wishers at Clockers' Corner Sunday morning. "It's a great feeling to have a horse like him on a special day like yesterday. The horse is something else.

"When I was that far in front, I didn't want to use him up for the next race. I don't want to empty the tank yet."

"He came back great," said Alan Sherman, son of and assistant to Art and a trainer in his own right. "He ate up last night and he looks good this morning. He came back to Los Al last night and will do all his important training here before going to Kentucky.

"The plane leaves on the 28th (of April). He'll just school and gallop at Churchill Downs."

Now the countdown is on to Kentucky, where California Chrome will seek to become the first horse bred in the Golden State to win the Run for the Roses since Decidedly in 1962.

Meanwhile, the media, well-versed in dealing with the ABP's of racing, as in Asmussen, Baffert and Pletcher, will 24/7 beseech Sherman, a new face, figuratively speaking. At 77, the ex-jockey from Brooklyn might be long in the tooth, but he is an otherwise refreshing newcomer with a multitude of underdog storylines at a time when racing is sorely in want of same.

California Chrome has captured the hearts of the racing world, especially the little guy who performs his menial tasks daily with little or no fanfare.

"This shows you a good horse can come from anywhere," said Richard Baltas, one of countless unheralded trainers who make up the backbone of the industry and without whom the game could not go on.

"When you see guys with a small outfit who have the best horse, it's heartwarming and gratifying. I spoke to Art earlier this year and he was talking about retiring. Then, here comes the horse of a lifetime. It keeps you going, and it's a great story."

"I've been in the business going on three decades," said agent Brian Beach, who represents Espinoza, "and I've won a lot of big races. I don't get chills very often, but the Santa Anita Derby yesterday gave me chills halfway down the stretch. The whole grandstand was standing and applauding. You don't see that very often."

When it comes to miracles, the story of California Chrome is reaching for shelf space bordering on supernatural, right up there with Jets versus Colts, Douglas versus Tyson, Miracle on 34th Street, the Miracle Mets, the Miracle on Ice, or any other miracle you want to name.

With great racing, the weather in a word, perfect, and an on-track crowd of 35,241 betting more than $4 million, Santa Anita Derby Day was a good day all around.

"Everything Santa Anita is doing is outstanding," said agent Brad Pegram, who represents Mike Smith and Martin Garcia, in an unsolicited statement.

"It's fun to be here now. It's a great atmosphere. There's a well-rounded crowd with families, not just fans. Santa Anita is doing a terrific job."

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