The Kentucky Derby trophy is made of gold, but California Chrome will be in the spotlight Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Is the modestly bred colt a superstar? Can he become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years?
Horse racing is about to find out.
California Chrome has done everything right in his last four races. He won by a total of 24 lengths, including a cruise-control victory in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby three weeks ago.
After California Chrome knocked off a quality field by five lengths, those who witnessed the performance were awed, including his 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman.
“It’s kind of spooky,” he told reporters. “I’m not used to that. I’ve seen my horses win, but not do what he’s doing.”
Off his splendid recent form, California Chrome is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the Derby’s 20-horse field. He will break from the No. 5 post position.
“That’s good enough for me,” Sherman said. “I think it’s a perfect spot. … If we break clean, he’ll get out of trouble. He’s got a little gas leaving there, too.”
Veteran jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the Derby in 2002 aboard 20-1 long shot War Emblem, will once again ride California Chrome.
What’s his strategy in a race loaded with horses who, like his own, perform best when positioned on or near the lead?
“Like every race — just come out of there running and play it by ear,” Espinoza said.
Among California Chrome’s primary challengers will be Danza, exactly the kind of horse that usually has little chance to win the Kentucky Derby.
He is lightly raced.
He had a seven-month layoff between his 2- and 3-year-old campaigns.
He was a last-minute qualifier only because of a huge effort at astronomical odds in one of the final prep races.
Horses with Danza’s credentials are almost always the kind that can be quickly eliminated when trying to handicap the Derby. Three weeks ago, he appeared to have as much chance of winning as one of the Clydesdales.
But that changed in the Arkansas Derby.
After a rail-skimming ride by veteran jockey Joe Bravo, Danza went off at 41-1 and scored a shockingly easy five-length win over a field that included more highly regarded Derby hopefuls Bayern, Ride on Curlin and Tapiture.
It was an incredibly impressive performance.
Breaking from the No. 1 post, Danza stalked Bayern’s moderate pace before exhibiting a tactical burst of speed that could also serve him well in the crowded field at Churchill Downs.
Midway through the turn — before the jockeys on the front-runners even knew he was there — Bravo drove through a small hole on the rail and into the lead.
Danza drew off in the stretch with the kind of authority that indicates he will not be bothered by the 11/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s really fun to have a special horse like that and have him run like that,” Bravo said. “I’m not a fortune teller, but hopefully, we can do it again. … This is what dreams are made of.”
P Saturday, 4:32 p.m. MDT
At Louisville, Ky.
TV • Ch. 5
Predicting the Derby
Handicapping the 2014 Kentucky Derby:
Post/Horse Jockey Trainer Line
4. Danza Joe Bravo Todd Pletcher 8-1
Perfect trip behind blistering pace?
5. California Chrome V. Espinoza Art Sherman 5-2
Overpowering in last four races
16. Commanding Curve S. Bridgmohan Dallas Stewart 50-1
Chance to pull a major surprise
19. Wicked Strong Rajiv Maragh James Jerkens 6-1
Post position a difficult obstacle
18. Ride on Curlin Calvin Borel William Gowan 15-1
Consistent, but no stakes wins
11. Dance With Fate Corey Nakatani Peter Eurton 20-1
Could come flying in the stretch
10. Wildcat Red Luis Saez Jose Garoffalo 15-1
Best of all the speed horses?
1. Vicar’s in Trouble Rosie Napravnik Mike Maker 30-1
Last rail winner was in 1986
13. Medal Count Robby Albarado Dale Romans 20-1
Another interesting stretch-runner
15. Intense Holiday John Velazquez Todd Pletcher 8-1
Flopped as La. Derby favorite
6. Samraat Jose Ortiz R. Violette 15-1
Upset possibility off very best
8. General a Rod Joel Rosario Mike Maker 15-1
Nothing wrong with Fla. Derby try
17. Candy Boy Gary Stevens John Sadler 15-1
No match for “Chrome” last time
15. Tapiture R. Santana Jr. S. Asmussen 12-1
Flattened out in Arkansas Derby
12. Chitu Martin Garcia Bob Baffert 20-1
Will factor into the torrid pace
3. Uncle Sigh Irad Ortiz Jr. Gary Contessa 30-1
Must make rapid improvement
7. We Miss Artie J. Castellano Todd Pletcher 50-1
Bred to be best on the grass
9. Vinceremos Joe Rocco Jr. Todd Pletcher 30-1
Hasn’t beaten this kind of rivals
2. Harry’s Holiday Corey Lanerie Mike Maker 50-1
Seems hopelessly overmatched
Yes, THAT Danza
Kentucky Derby contender Danza is named after actor Tony Danza, who is best known for his work on the TV series “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss.”
On Dec. 28, 1993, Danza was involved in a horrific skiing accident at Deer Valley. He hit a tree at 50 mph and suffered life-threatening injuries, including five fractured ribs and a broken back. Danza’s first role after the accident — over a year later — was in the made-for-TV movie “Deadly Whispers.”
“The accident is legendary in Utah,” executive producer Leonard Hill said during a interview promoting the movie. “It was a major wipeout. I happened to be skiing up there a couple of weeks later and it got so well-known that they introduced a verb into the lexicon of Deer Valley: ‘to Danza.’ People will come down the mountain saying, ‘Boy, I Danza-ed going down the Rattler.’ ”