Dale Romans, like his late father, Jerry, is a trainer based at Churchill Downs, and he's seen every Derby winner since the 1970s. Last week, he felt certain California Chrome didn't fit the profile, and the 2012 Eclipse Award winner backed his opinion with cash.
Like everyone else who doubted the California-bred with the humble pedigree, Romans ended up shaking his head and throwing away his tickets. California Chrome's 1¾-length victory -- it could have been four lengths if Victor Espinoza hadn't eased up late and stood just before the wire -- convinced Romans the 5-2 favorite was no overrated underdog.
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"I didn't think California Chrome had any chance going into this race, and I was very, very wrong," said Romans, whose Medal Count ran eighth. "Whether this 3-year-old crop is a good one or not, that's a special horse. I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I thought he was the weakest Derby favorite we've had in a lot of years, and he might be a super horse. Now he has a new fan."
Millions of them, actually, and their belief in trainer Art Sherman's horse of a lifetime will make him the odds-on favorite Saturday in the 13/16-mile Preakness Stakes. Eight of the last 17 Derby winners repeated at Pimlico, and bovada.com rates California Chrome a 2-3 favorite to join them. The betting site makes him a 2-1 underdog to pull off the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978.
Of the 18 horses "Chromie" crushed in Louisville, only Ride On Curlin (seventh) and General a Rod (11th) are confirmed to show up in Baltimore. Among the new shooters are Bayern, trained by five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert, and Social Inclusion, third in the Wood Memorial. Dallas Stewart said he'll freshen Derby runner-up Commanding Curve for the June 7 Belmont Stakes, whose last eight winners skipped the Preakness.
Co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin spent a measly $10,500 -- $8,000 for the mare Love the Chase and $2,500 to breed her to Lucky Pulpit -- to produce California Chrome. Minutes after raising the Derby trophy, Coburn took victory at Pimlico for granted.
"I told people this colt will go down in history," he said. "When he wins the Triple Crown, he will be the first California-bred ever to win it."
Before you doubt the Nostradamus of Nevada, consider his track record in the prediction business. He dreamed California Chrome would be a chestnut colt with four white stockings, and yea verily, it came to pass. Before the first horse he bred ever raced, Coburn texted Sherman a list of four stakes in which he wanted to run, and California Chrome won them all. Coburn also forecast he'd take the Derby. Who knows, maybe the racing gods made a Derby future bet on him at Horse Heaven OTB.
Even Sherman, at 77 a horseman of the very old school, has tempered his skepticism. After becoming the oldest trainer to win a Derby, how could he not?
"I'm not saying anything now," he said. "Steve has a dream, and I've had a taste of it. I think California Chrome is a rock star, I'm his manager and we're going all the way."
Wesley Ward, who trains long shot Pablo Del Monte, knows what he's up against Saturday. "I know California Chrome is on his game right now," Ward said. "I'm certain he's going to run a big race."
Yet a lifetime in the game makes Sherman wary of Murphy's Law, and his colt's situation is similar to Orb's before the 2013 Derby winner plodded in fourth at 4-5 odds in the Preakness. Contrarians will stress that this year's Derby was the slowest (2:03.66) on a fast track in 40 years, and that the Beyer Speed Figure (97) was the lowest for a Derby winner since Andrew Beyer began calculating those numbers in the late 1980s.
"I didn't think he liked the track," Sherman said. "I thought it got a little dry, like a sandy beach, in the two hours before the Derby. I thought it was a lot faster earlier in the card."
The two-week turnaround concerns Sherman most. He prefers giving his horses, even cheap claimers, six or seven weeks between races. "I've never run him back this quick, but there's not much we can do," he said. "If he's not fit now, he'll never be fit. We're just training him lightly, keeping him happy."
Sherman never has felt better, getting a kick out of being an instant celebrity asked to pose for pictures and sign autographs. "It's made me like an old Willie Nelson rock star," he said. "For 77, I'm doing pretty good."
If he wins Saturday, the real circus will begin.
"I'm enjoying it," he said. "When do you ever get a horse like this?"