(Reuters) - California Chrome stamped himself as the likely favorite for next month's Kentucky Derby with a runaway win in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Derby.
The three-year-old colt lived up to his big reputation when he blew away his rivals to win one of the last major lead-up races before the 140th Kentucky Derby.
Jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby with War Emblem, allowed odds-on favorite California Chrome to settle just outside the early leader before taking over entering the final straight.
Once he got his nose in front, California Chrome instantly shot clear of the field and cruised to victory by five and a quarter lengths despite being eased down by Espinoza over the final half furlong.
"It's kind of spooky, I'm not used to that," California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman told NBC.
"I've seen horses win by a length or two but nothing like what he's been doing."
California Chrome's eyepopping win was his fourth in a row this season and propelled him to the top of the points leaderboard that will decide the final 20 runners for the May 3 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Hoppertunity finished second and also has enough points to qualify while Candy Boy battled on for third and is likely to make the top 20.
An hour earlier, Wicked Strong clinched his place in the Kentucky Derby with an upset win in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York.
Patiently ridden by Rajiv Maragh, the 9-1 chance unleashed a devastating late sprint to win by three and a half lengths from the previously unbeaten Samraat and the race favorite Social Inclusion.
"I let the horse dictate where he wanted to be early and when I called on him, he responded," said Maragh. "He did everything so perfect today."
The build-up to the first leg of U.S. racing's Triple Crown continues next weekend with the running of the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass at Keeneland - the last big lead-up races before the Run for the Roses.
Reporting by Julian Linden in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry