He was the king of spring, the humbly bred "people's horse" whose improbable Triple Crown bid became mainstream news. It's been 31/2 months since California Chrome's fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes disappointed millions and ignited co-owner Steve Coburn's sour grapes rants on live television. The rangy chestnut colt has re-emerged in an unlikely place, Parx, a racino in Philadelphia's suburbs, for Saturday's $1-million Pennsylvania Derby.
The megabucks, courtesy of the track's full-service casino, were a powerful lure, along with bonuses of $100,000 for trainer Art Sherman and $50,000 each for Coburn and partner Perry Martin. California Chrome's reputation made him the even-money favorite in the morning line, yet shipping from California off a layoff to an unfamiliar track is asking a lot.
Sherman said he still expects a strong performance in his colt's only prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. "If he gets outrun, he gets outrun, but they're going to have to run their shoes off," he said Tuesday. "But I think he's going to run a big race. His last two works have been awesome. I think he's ready to peak."
After injuring a foot in the Belmont, California Chrome spent five weeks at his birthplace, Harris Farm, in central California. "He got some R and R, unwound and got the foot healed up," Sherman said. "It was a superficial cut, and we got lucky there was no infection."
A swift 6-furlong workout in 1:101/5 on Sept. 6 at Los Alamitos convinced Sherman and jockey Victor Espinoza that "Chromie" was his old self. "It was awesome," Sherman said. "Victor said it was the best he's felt since he's come back."
Contrarians will bet against the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, who drew the rail against a strong field led by front-running Haskell winner Bayern (7-2) and Tapiture (5-1) and Candy Boy (10-1), who finished 1-2, respectively, in the West Virginia Derby. Todd Pletcher entered Protonico (6-1), who won a minor stakes at Parx after losing by a neck at Saratoga to subsequent Travers winner V.E. Day.
Sherman could have run next weekend against the undefeated gelding Shared Belief in Santa Anita's $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes. Ron Winchell, Tapiture's owner, wonders why he didn't. "California Chrome is turning back to a mile and an eighth against horses in top form," Winchell said. "That leaves him a little bit vulnerable. If I were his owner, I wouldn't have chosen this spot."
Sherman's response: "Oh, did he think I should run against Shared Belief? He's a very good horse, and I want to be at my best when I face him. To me, he and my horse are the best 3-year-olds in the country."
On Saturday, we'll see if California Chrome still rates that high.