LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When white-haired trainer Art Sherman made a pilgrimage back to Churchill Downs for the first time in 59 years he had a special stop on his itinerary. The other day he visited the grave of Swaps on the grounds to pay his respects.
"I said a little prayer, and it came true," said Sherman, who had not returned to the Kentucky Derby since Swaps won in 1955 and he was an exercise rider.
Saturday, at 77, Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the Run for the Roses when California Chrome burst free of the 19-horse pack of 3-year-olds coming off the last turn in the 1¼-mile race. California Chrome romped past the finish line to handily capture the 140th Kentucky Derby.
"He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life," said the California-based Sherman.
While the time in the most prestigious thoroughbred horse race in the world was a pedestrian 2 minutes, 3.66 seconds, California Chrome, a chestnut horse with a white blaze on its face, confirmed its status as the 5-2 favorite while the event's second largest crowd of all time at 164,906 roared him home.
California Chrome paid $7.00 on a $2 bet to win, $5.60 to place and $4.20 to show while winning his down-to-earth co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin the $1.4-million share of the $2.2-million purse.
This victory was a fairy tale of the race track, more often an unforgiving sporting venue where dreams go to die. It was Coburn's 61st birthday, and he and Martin, who formed "Dumb Ass Partners" a few years ago, delivered the most enchanting of stories.
Coburn and Brown are not wealthy, but working folks with a horse racing hobby. California Chrome, which won the Santa Anita Derby and banked $1.1 in winnings on the way to Kentucky, represented just an $8,000 investment in a mare, Love The Chase, and a one-time $2,000 stallion fee to California Chrome's papa, Lucky Pulpit.
The first California-bred to win the Derby since 1962 has cost considerably more to keep in hay and oats and Coburn, a cowboy-hat-wearing Wilford Brimley lookalike, said the ownership dipped into savings and retirement accounts to support the horse.
Coburn dreamed the exact appearance of the horse the day before it was born and Coburn and Martin had so much faith in California Chrome they turned down $6-million offers to sell. Some called them crazy. After Saturday, they didn't look so dumb, the result belying their silly corporate nickname.
"We knew within our souls what type of horse we had," Coburn said.
Everyone else found out on a sunny, 70-degree afternoon. California Chrome came out of the five slot in the starting gate and jockey Victor Espinoza, winning his second career Derby -- the first was on War Emblem in 2002 -- guided the favorite near the front. He briefly worried about being boxed in by the stampede into the first turn.
"I wanted to get out fast," said Espinoza, who is from Mexico. "Everybody was coming. I was really a bit concerned. My heart was beating 100 mph."
But California Chrome settled into a comfortable pace on the backstretch behind Chitu and Uncle Sigh (who were never heard from again).
"He got to the lead and was going good, but he got tired," said Uncle Sigh's jockey Irad Oritz Jr.
By then Espinosa knew he had plenty of room. The horses were bunched heading into the backstretch, but California Chrome began putting distance on the others. One by one they faded and Chrome legged it in.
Longshot Commanding Curve finished second, 1¾ lengths back, paying $31.80 to place and $15.40 to show, while Danza, named after actor Tony Danza, was third, paying $6.00 to show.
"I had everything going good," said Danza jockey Joe Bravo, "but turning for home I had to wheel out and go around horses. But he kept kicking."
So did California Chrome -- and faster than everyone else.
"He ran his eyeballs out," said the apparently ageless Sherman, who broke Charlie Whittingham's senior citizen Derby record of 73, set when Ferdinand won the 1986 Derby. "He had a lot of gas in the tank. When he spurted away I said, 'Now let me take over for the next 80 yards.' "
Espinosa, 41, did not need a relief rider. A short while later he was still digesting this triumph, but thinks he will enjoy this Derby title more than his first at 29.
"The last one I was young," Espinosa said, saying he could retire happy.
Coburn immediately jumped in and said, "You've got two more races."
No one needed an explanation. California Chrome's handlers are committed to the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes -- a full Triple Crown season.
"It's an incredible, incredible journey we've been on," Coburn said, tearing up, as he had a few times following the finish, reveling in the best birthday present he has ever had. "I told people this colt will go down in history."
Horse racing fans have ached for a Triple Crown winner since 1978 when Affirmed became the last to perform the trick. It will not take much for America to fall in love with California Chrome's appealing connections if this horse can keep winning.
By LEW FREEDMAN
Daily News Correspondent