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Horse racing-California Chrome shines at Kentucky Derby

(Reuters) - California Chrome won the 140th Kentucky Derby in brilliant fashion at a bright and sunny Churchill Downs on Saturday, adding another fairytale chapter to America's most famous and revered horse race.

Perfectly ridden by Victor Espinoza, the three-year-old colt pinned back his ears and sprinted clear of his rivals to win the $2.2 million classic by one and a quarter lengths.

Commanding Curve, a 37-1 longshot, charged home late to finish second while Danza, named after "Who's the Boss" actor Tony Danza, boxed on for third after trying to stick with California Chrome over the mile and a quarter journey on the Kentucky dirt.

Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second favorite named in honor of the Boston marathon victims, finished fourth after starting from the widest barrier but California Chrome was never truly threatened.

Unbeaten this season, California Chrome was installed as the 5-2 favorite after romping to victories in each of his four previous races, including last month's Santa Anita Derby.

When the 'Run for the Roses' got underway, California Chrome broke quickly and settled in third place.

He made his move as the field of 19 runners turned for home, taking the lead with a breathtaking burst of acceleration before the shadows of the iconic Twin Spires as the crowd of almost 165,000 let out a mighty roar.

Horse racing has been dubbed the "Sport of Kings" but it is also a sport full of glorious unpredictability and heart-tugging tales, and there have been few to match the unlikely rise of California Chrome.

His 77-year-old conditioner Art Sherman became the oldest man to train the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

The son of a Brooklyn barber, Sherman has spent a lifetime in racing but found little success on the track.

He had never even had a runner in the Derby before this year, though he was an exercise rider for Swaps when he won the race in 1955. Sherman slept with Swaps on a bed of straw on a four-day train trip from the California.

This time he'll fly home on a chartered jet.

"This has to be the sweetest moment of my life," Sherman said. "To be my age and have something like this happen, what can you say?"

GUARDIAN ANGELS

For Mexican-born jockey Espinoza, it was his second win in the Derby after he saluted on War Emblem in 2002.

The 41-year-old showed all his big race experience with a cool and calculated ride, keeping his mount out of harm's way before unleashing him in the stretch.

"I never dreamed I'd win a second Kentucky Derby, but here it is," Espinoza said.

"This was a typical race for him. He ran like he always does. I don't mess with him too much. I just stretch his legs a little bit and then let him do his thing."

California Chrome became just the fourth horse from the Golden State, and the first since 1962, to win the Bluegrass state's crown jewel with a classic rags to riches tale that has already endeared him to the American racing public.

He was bred for just $10,000, a pittance in a sport where regally-bred horses change hands for millions of dollars, by two blue-collar working men who were new to the race game but took a gamble on a mare that no one else wanted.

Steve Coburn and Perry Martin named their two-man syndicate Dumb-Ass Partners after overhearing a stablehand say they were fools to try and breed from Love the Chase, the unwanted dam that has given them Californian Chrome.

Many thought they were crazy when they turned down a $6 million offer to sell a 51 percent share of their star colt after he won the Santa Anita Derby but no one doubts their judgment now.

The flashy chestnut has now won more than $2.5 million from 11 starts and will be worth millions more as a stallion after winning the Derby.

And he is not finished yet.

Even before the colt had been draped with the traditional winner's garland of red rose, his owners declared he would go for the Triple Crown, comprising the Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Only 11 horses, among them Secretariat, have pulled off the feat that has become the holy grail of American racing. The last horse to do it was Affirmed in 1978.

"I think we're in a pretty good place now," Coburn said. "Our guardian angels have been pretty good to us."

Dale Romans, who trained the eighth-places horse Medal Count, said he had become a believer after watching California Chrome first hand.

"I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby but I'm very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran," Romans said.

"Now he has a new fan."

Hall of fame trainer Bob Baffert was also gushing about the winner after his own horse, Chitu, faded to finish ninth.

"You could tell he was comfortable the whole way. He's for real," Baffert said. "It's going to be a great Triple Crown series."

(Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Peter Rutherford/Gene Cherry)

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