ARCADIA, Calif. (March 6, 2014)–In a breathtaking performance, California Chrome, under Victor Espinoza, won Saturday’s Grade II, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes in gate to wire fashion by 7 ¼ lengths, covering 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59, the second fastest final time in the 77-year history of the race, potentially stamping himself as the horse to beat in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5.

Breaking like a shot from the number two post position as the 7-5 favorite in a field of six 3-year-olds, the Art Sherman-conditioned California Chrome was quickly in-hand around the Club House turn with second choice Midnight Hawk to his outside and was full himself through splits of 23.09, 45.55, 1:09.45 and 1:35.94.

“He ran like I expected him to,” said Espinoza. “I wanted to try something new today, so I let him go right out of the gate. I don’t know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race–I just let him go.

“In these races, you can’t just try and do too much with them. I think it’s important for him to do his thing for the first five-eighths and be happy.”

A California-bred colt by Lucky Pulpit, California Chrome is owned by his breeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn. With his San Felipe win, he picked up 50 all-important qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby on May 3, virtually assuring himself a berth in the Run for the Roses.

Based at Los Alamitos Racecourse, California Chrome had five works since a resounding win versus state-breds in the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita on Jan. 25.

“I didn’t think he’d be on the lead, but he was a handful today,” said Sherman, a former jockey who was an exercise boy for Hall of Fame trainer Mesh Tenney when his legendary California-bred Swaps won the 1955 Kentucky Derby. “I just told Victor, ‘You got him.’ I told him he broke like that because of that Quarter Horse training at Los Alamitos…We all know Santa Anita’s a speed-biased type of track, so it was really great to see him with the hold he had on him. It’s unbelievable.”

Asked if the Grade I Santa Anita Derby would be next, Sherman responded: “We’ll kind of play it by ear. I needed the 50 points and we’ll kind of see what happens…I don’t think the distance will make any difference, a mile and a quarter. I think he’ll run all day.”

California Chrome won for the third time in-a-row and picked up his fifth win from nine starts overall. He paid $4.80, $2.60 and $2.10. With the winner’s share of $180,000, he increased his earnings to $534,850.

Midnight Hawk, a winner of the Grade III, one mile Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Jan. 11, came off a third place performance in the Grade II, 1 1/16 miles Robert B. Lewis Stakes Feb. 8, was ridden by Mike Smith for Bob Baffert and finished second, 6 ¼ lengths clear of Kristo and Joel Rosario.

“He didn’t break as well as we’d like, but in saying that, he had no excuse,” said Smith. “The winner just beat me. I wish the outcome was different, but it is what it is.”

Midnight Hawk paid $3.00 and $2.20.

“I was a little disappointed running second,” said Baffert. “He ran with that horse, but he couldn’t sustain it and he got a little tired there at the end. I told Mike that was the horse to beat. We just got out-run today.”

Kristo, who was ridden by Joel Rosario, was far back, in next-to-last position after a half mile and was never a factor, finishing third, 1 ½ lengths in front of Schoolofhardrocks and Joe Talamo.

The third choice at 7-2, Kristo paid $2.60 to show.