California cool

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Dawn was still wrapped in its dusky, hazy packaging, but quite a few visitors were already lining up along the outside rail on the Churchill Downs backstretch, waiting for the appearance of the favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby. Some people standing in the nearby viewing stands didn't know exactly what they were waiting for, but they were sensitive to the expectancy; others gathered in clusters farther down the stretch, near the building that used to be the Rec Hall but became this week a media center for radio and television and various photo shoots.

When California Chrome stepped onto the racetrack about 6:45 Thursday morning, the hundred or so observers who recognized him tested the intelligence of their smartphones. Word quickly spread of his arrival, cameras whirred and necks craned.

In the backstretch clockers' stand, overlooking the entire scene, California Chrome's trainer, Art Sherman, seemed unfazed. And why should he worry, even with this circus? The first time Sherman traveled to Kentucky, he came by rail and rode in a boxcar, with Swaps, back in 1955, and that turned out OK. Swaps won the Derby. And so the 77-year-old trainer who'll become a great-grandfather in June talked and joked with friends as his Derby favorite jogged up the track.

If California Chrome is as cool as his trainer, he'll win the Kentucky Derby. Then again, that's not something I'd care to bet on.

Over the last 34 years, only five betting favorites have won the most famous of races. There was a stretch of 20 Derbies, 1980 through 1999, when no betting favorite won the race and the typical favorite finished seventh. Even over the last decade, when they've done well, the typical Derby favorite has finished fifth.

The Derby is unique; nothing can simulate it. The horses that will line up for the 140th running on Saturday have never carried 126 pounds, or felt the intense attention of a throng of 150,000 people or heard the University of Louisville marching band play "My Old Kentucky Home." These young horses never have found themselves in a group of 20 rushing 5/16 of a mile to get position before taking a sharp left turn, and, of course, they've never raced 1 ΒΌ miles. They're all asked to do many, many things they've never done before or even imagined. The challenge can elicit greatness and expose fraudulence. Whichever horse can maintain his cool and be like Art Sherman will win the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome jogged to the paddock, where for the second time in two days he was allowed to look around, get the feel of things. Then he went to the starting gate, just to get acquainted -- "California Chrome, starting gate. Starting gate, California Chrome."

And then he galloped. California Chrome seemed a little stiff and choppy, uncomfortable, his head cocked. He didn't make a positive impression. Then again, some terrific horses -- Bodemeister comes to mind -- rolled around the track like a trundle bed when galloping, but then ripped a hole in the wind whenever they ran. Assault, who had a clubfoot, once tripped over his own feet during a routine gallop -- on his way to sweeping the 1946 Triple Crown. Anyway, people familiar with California Chrome said his Thursday morning gallop was typical. That's just him.

"He looked good out there," Sherman said. "He's feeling good, and he's doing good. He's coming up to this race right."

California Chrome's main problem in the Derby could be the pace and his position relative to the other speedsters.

And he probably is. Still, if his odds remain in the discouraging neighborhood of 5-2, his success in this adventure isn't a possibility I care to invest in. He's the most likely winner, true, but does he have a 33-percent chance of winning, in a 20-horse field, where he's awash in a confluence of unique and challenging circumstances? The risk exceeds the return.

California Chrome's main problem in the Derby could be the pace and his position relative to the other speedsters. He has post position No. 5. To his inside, there are two horses, Uncle Sigh (No. 3) and Vicar's In Trouble (No. 1), who possess considerable natural speed. To the Derby favorite's outside, there are more speedsters -- Samraat (No. 6) and General A Rod (No. 8), but especially Wildcat Red (No. 10) and Chitu (No. 13). Another with some quickness, Pablo Del Monte, might join the field after the scratch of Hoppertunity.

In other words, California Chrome will be surrounded, like Chesty Puller in Korea. And, of course, California Chrome has abundant natural speed himself. He led from the start while winning the San Felipe and was with the early lead in the Santa Anita Derby. He's fast; speed's his game. Augmented by his competiveness and pride, his natural speed might urge him to get involved early in something that could prove to be compromising. Will he be as cool as his trainer and ignore the circus all around him, content to rate in, say, fifth position? If so, he could very well win the Derby.

But that's not a possibility I care to bet on, especially since he finished sixth in the only race, the Del Mar Futurity, where he was farther back than fourth after the opening half-mile.

And so I'm looking at Kentucky Derby 140 this way: I'm going to bet against California Chrome, but I'm also going to cheer for him. If he loses, I have a chance to cash hugely; if he wins, the sport has a Kentucky Derby winner who's as cool as Art Sherman.