The modest California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit ran his current winning streak to three while scoring his first triumph over open company in the 1 1/16-mile test for 3-year-olds by 7 1/4 lengths. His combined margin of victory during his current streak is 19 lengths.
The victory was worth 50 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) for California Chrome, who is trained by Art Sherman. The shiny chestnut colt posted prior stakes wins over restricted foes in the King Glorious Stakes Dec. 22 and California Cup Derby Jan. 25, and also captured the Graduation Stakes last summer at Del Mar.
Sherman, who has been in the racing business for more than 50 years as jockey and trainer, has his first serious Derby contender.
"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," Sherman said. "It's unbelievable."
The San Felipe morning line favorite, Bayern, was withdrawn from the San Felipe earlier in the week with a foot bruise.
Sent off at odds of 7-5 with Victor Espinoza aboard, California Chrome posted an outstanding time of 1:40.59, second quickest in the 77-year history of the San Felipe. Midnight Hawk was a distant second while still 6 1/4 lengths clear of third-place Kristo. The San Felipe was the first of four graded stakes on the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) program Saturday.
The win sets up a tantalizing match-up for Golden State 3-year-old supremacy with impressive Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) winner Candy Boy in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 5.
"Well, we'll kind of play it by ear," Sherman said of California Chrome's next start. "I needed this 50 points and we'll kind of see what happens. Now I think I deserve to go to the (Kentucky) Derby (May 3)."
Owned and bred by Perry and Denise Martin and Steve and Carolyn Coburn, California Chrome is out of the winning Not For Love mare Love the Chase.
"This horse is improving right at the right time. People keep saying he's only a California-bred. The horse doesn't know that," said Steve Coburn. "He just keeps looking better and better.
California Chrome outbroke his six rivals in the San Felipe and displayed good speed as Midnight Hawk joined him on the outside on the clubhouse turn. California Chrome opened a half-length advantage over the 2-1 second choice following an opening quarter in :23.09 and maintained his slight edge through a swift half mile in :45.55 and six furlongs in 1:09.45.
Inching away from Midnight Hawk leaving the far turn, California Chrome was in command in the drive, opening up by 4 1/2 at the furlong mark. California Chrome cruised home under a long hold hold from Espinoza, who waved his stick at the winner late.
"I wanted to try something new today so I let him go right out of the gate," said Espinoza, who has ridden California Chrome in his past three starts. "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.
"He's been training over at Los Al but he does things so much easier at Santa Anita after having trained at Los Al. He didn't feel tired at all after the wire."
Midnight Hawk, ridden by Mike Smith for trainer Bob Baffert, was a clear second over the late-running Kristo and Joel Rosario.
"He didn't break as well as we'd like, but in saying that, he had no excuse," Smith said of Midnight Hawk's trip. "The winner just beat me."
California Chrome's fifth lifetime win from nine starts was worth $180,000 and boosted his career earnings to $534,850.
Carrying 118 pounds, California Chrome paid $4.80, $2.60, and $2.10. Midnight Hawk returned $3 and $2.20 while completing a chalky $12.40 exacta. Kristo, making his first start for trainer John Sadler since finishing second to Midnight Hawk in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 11, paid $2.60 to show.