National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

California Chrome breaks away for Derby win

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) A horse with a humble pedigree. A couple of working stiff owners. A 77-year-old trainer with his first Kentucky Derby horse.

Even Hollywood couldn't have made this up.

California Chrome made it look easy on Saturday, pulling away down the stretch to win the Derby by 1 3/4 lengths.

In a sport dominated by wealthy owners and regally bred horses from Kentucky's bluegrass country, this was a victory for the little guys. Owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn bred an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion to produce the winner of the world's most famous race with their one-horse stable.

"This is just a dream come true and a great birthday present,"' said Coburn, who turned 61 on Saturday.

California Chrome ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.66 and paid $7, $5.60 and $4.20. The chestnut colt was sent off as the 5-2 favorite by the crowd of 164,906, the second-largest in the Derby's 140-year history.

His trainer, Art Sherman, became the oldest trainer to win the Derby, 59 years after he traveled from California as an exercise rider for Derby winner Swaps. He watched that race from the barn area; this time he smelled red roses in the winner's circle.

Sherman was all smiles after the race. "He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life," he said.

California Chrome has the unlikeliest pedigree for a Derby champion. His mother, named Love the Chase, won just one race. She was purchased by Coburn and Martin, a move that prompted a trainer to call them "dumb asses" for getting involved in racing.

Feeling inspired, they named their operation DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Their silks include an image of a donkey.

Coburn lives near Reno, Nevada, rising at 4:30 a.m. for his job as a press operator at a 13-employee company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and driver licenses.

Martin lives on the California side of the border near Reno, running a laboratory that tests high-reliability equipment, like car air bags and medical equipment.

Coburn and Martin's partnership is based on a handshake, and their wives are friends who enjoy the sport, too. The group came up with California Chrome's name by drawing it out of a hat. The horse hadn't even been out of his home state until this week.

"Sometimes you don't get a lot of respect," Sherman said. "We're in Kentucky and you know most of the Derby winners are bred here and few outside of Kentucky."

Sherman visited Swaps' grave near the Derby museum earlier in the week and whispered a prayer: "I hope he's another Swaps."

He sure was.

California Chrome extended his winning streak to five races, won by a combined 26 lengths. It was the second Derby win for Espinoza, who rode War Emblem to victory in 2002.

"I thought he rode him perfect," said Sherman, a former jockey. "I was riding the last 70 yards with Victor, so I think he was riding two. He had a lot of weight on him, I can tell you that."

Espinoza had California Chrome sitting comfortably in third in the 19-horse field as Uncle Sigh and Chitu set the early pace.

California Chrome made his move on the final turn in tandem with Samraat. It looked like those two would decide the outcome, until California Chrome sped away to become the first California-bred to win the Derby since Decidedly in 1962.

"This horse has so much talent," Espinoza said. "By the three-eighths pole I knew that was it. I could see other horses struggling a little bit, and he was just smooth."

Dale Romans, who trained eighth-place Medal Count, quickly changed his tune about California Chrome after believing the colt had no chance to win.

"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."

Commanding Curve, a 37-1 shot, rallied for second, with Danza third. Wicked Strong was fourth and Samraat finished fifth.

Commanding Curve returned $31.80 and $15.40, giving trainer Dallas Stewart his second straight runner-up finish with a double-digit longshot. Danza, named for actor Tony Danza of "Who's the Boss?" fame, paid $6 to show as the 8-1 third choice.

Trainer Todd Pletcher came up empty with his four starters, finishing third with Danza, 10th with We Miss Artie, 12th with Intense Holiday, and 17th with Vinceremos.

Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second choice, was fourth. Samraat was fifth, followed by Dance With Fate, Ride On Curlin, Medal Count, Chitu, We Miss Artie, General a Rod, Intense Holiday, Candy Boy, Uncle Sigh, Tapiture, Harry's Holiday, Vinceremos, and Wildcat Red. Vicar's In Trouble, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, finished last.

Before the Derby, Coburn had told anyone who would listen that California Chrome "would go down in history." He remains just as unabashed.

"I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown," he said, something that hasn't been done since 1978, when Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in a five-week span.

"That's where we're going."

NBA to appoint CEO to supervise Clippers

LOS ANGELES (AP) The NBA said Saturday it will appoint a chief executive officer to supervise the Los Angeles Clippers' operations after banning owner Donald Sterling from the league for life.

The league announced its decision a few hours before the Clippers faced the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for racist comments made on an audio recording, fined him $2.5 million and urged league owners to force him to sell the team.

"The best way to ensure the stability of the team during this difficult situation is to move quickly and install a CEO to oversee the Clippers organization," Mike Bass, the NBA executive vice president of communications, said in a statement. "The process of identifying that individual is underway."

The decision was welcomed by Sterling's long-estranged wife, Rochelle, who said she was fully committed to making the Clippers the best team in the NBA.

"I spoke with Commissioner Adam Silver this week to tell him that I fully supported his recent swift and decisive action," said Rochelle Sterling, who was expected to attend Game 7.

"We also agreed at that time that, as a next step, both the league and the team should work together to find some fresh, accomplished executive leadership for the Clippers. I welcome his active involvement in the search for a person of the utmost character, proven excellence and a commitment to promoting equality and inclusiveness."

A forced sale would require approval of three-fourths of the league's owners. The NBA's 10-member finance/advisory committee held a conference call Thursday, agreeing to move forward quickly on the potential sale.

Sterling hasn't said whether he will fight the league in court.

Clippers President Andy Roeser has been the franchise's most prominent executive in recent years, but Roeser upset many team employees last weekend when he released a statement questioning whether the incriminating recordings of Sterling were legitimate. Roeser's statement seemed too sympathetic to Sterling for many outraged employees, with apologetic words about the 80-year-old owner alongside criticism of V. Stiviano, the other voice on the recordings.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers spent Friday morning speaking with upset employees who felt further betrayed by Roeser's statement. Rivers also serves as the Clippers' senior vice president of basketball operations.

Rivers wasn't fazed by the timing of the league's latest decision shortly before the Clippers' biggest game of the season.

"We've got to talk about everything else, so let's talk about that, too," Rivers said. "The NBA has to do their job, they really do. They have a lot on their plate as well, and I don't think it's something they can wait on. They're going to do their job."

Rivers said he hadn't yet been consulted by the league on the specifics of its CEO search, although he is in regular contact with Silver.

The NBA has made similar moves in the past. The league appointed Jack Sperling to supervise the New Orleans Hornets during the 2011-12 season after taking over financial operation of the team from owner George Shinn.

The Clippers have already begun their transition away from the last 33 years under Sterling, the NBA's longest-tenured owner.

When the players went back to work at practice Friday, Sterling-related memorabilia had been removed from the trophy case in a public hallway at their palatial $60 million training complex built by Sterling six years ago. Even the "Sterling Drive" sign outside the Playa Vista facility had been taken down.

If the NBA is able to force the Clippers' sale, the team is certain to be pursued by many wealthy buyers. Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen and Larry Ellison immediately expressed interest in a joint bid, while Magic Johnson's ownership group with the Los Angeles Dodgers also is likely to be interested.

Pacers roll past Hawks, 92-80 in Game 7

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored a playoff career-high 30 points and Roy Hibbert finally came up big to lead the Indiana Pacers past the Atlanta Hawks, 92-80 on Saturday night in Game 7.

Indiana staved off elimination for the second time in three days. It's the first time since mid-March the Pacers' regular starters have won back-to-back games.

Instead of becoming the sixth top seed to lose in the first round of the current 16-team playoff format, the Pacers will be back on their home floor Monday night against Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Kyle Korver scored 19 points and Jeff Teague had 16 for Atlanta, which won just 38 games in the regular season but proved to be a tough opponent for the Pacers.

The game turned on a 24-6 run over a 10:02 stretch that spanned the second and third quarters. That gave Indiana a 57-40 lead it never surrendered.

Hibbert, who scored 20 points total in the first four games, had a series-high 13 points and seven rebounds. Lance Stephenson finished with 19 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, and George added 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double in the playoffs.

And they all played like they had something to prove after twice squandering chances to take control of the series on their home floor.

They refused to let it happen again.

Indiana completely flipped the script on Atlanta. Instead of chasing the Hawks, the Pacers pulled away. Instead of yielding to the Hawks' 3-point shooters, the Pacers took advantage of their size by dominating the glass and creating openings for perimeter shooters. And instead of trying to hide Hibbert, the All-Star center who had failed to score in Games 5 or 6, the All-Star center was his old imposing self.

The Pacers finished with a 55-38 rebounding edge and with Hibbert clogging the way, the Hawks were forced to rely primarily on 3-pointers. Atlanta wound up just 11 of 44 from beyond the arc, most coming as it tried to dig out of a double-digit deficit.

It didn't take Indiana long to demonstrate why this game would be different from the first six.

After the Hawks went on a 7-0 run to take a 23-17 lead late in the first quarter, Indiana answered with its own 7-0 run to make it 24-23 entering the second.

Then after trading the lead seven times early in the second, the Pacers seized control by closing the half on a 14-2 run for a 47-36 lead. Indiana's usually stout defense didn't allow a basket over the final 6:12 and Ian Mahinmi emphasized the point with a clean block of Teague's dunk attempt at the buzzer - a play reminiscent of Hibbert's series-changing block of Carmelo Anthony in last year's playoffs.

When the Hawks charged back with a 13-4 run late in the third to get within 66-58, David West hit a midrange jumper and George followed that with a 3. George then opened the fourth by scoring the first six points in the midst of a 9-1 run that gave Indiana an 80-64 lead.

Atlanta never got closer than 10 again.

Notes: Indiana played Game 7 at home for the first time in its NBA history. ... The Pacers will face Washington at home on Monday and Wednesday, then hit the road Friday and Sunday. ... Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap didn't make a basket until the third quarter. ... Atlanta is 2-3 all-time in Game 7s since the franchise moved from St. Louis. ... Defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan attended the game. ... The 14-point margin was Indiana's second-largest victory margin in Game 7, trailing only a 27-point win at Boston in 2005.

Lillard's 3 at buzzer leads Blazers past Rockets

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Damian Lillard hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Portland Trail Blazers stunned the Houston Rockets 99-98 to take their playoff series in six games and advance to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years.

In the raucous postgame celebration, Lillard took the public address microphone and shouted "Rip City!"

Portland, making its first playoff appearance since 2011, had been eliminated in the first round in its last six trips, and hadn't advanced to the second round since 2000.

Dwight Howard's layup and foul shot put the Rockets up 96-94 before Nicolas Batum's fadeaway jumper tied it again with 39.9 seconds left. Chandler Parsons scored on a reverse layup with 0.9 seconds left to give Houston the lead before Lillard won it.

Portland will face the winner of the series between San Antonio and Dallas.

Rays finally break loose in 14th, outlast Yankees

NEW YORK (AP) Wil Myers and the Tampa Bay Rays broke loose in the 14th inning while holding Derek Jeter to the worst hitting performance of his career, outlasting the New York Yankees for a wild 10-5 win that ended at 12:57 a.m. Saturday.

Jeter went 0 for 7 for the first time and grounded out with the bases loaded to finish the 13th. It was already a crazy game by then, and Yankee Stadium was nearly empty when it finally ended after 5 hours, 49 minutes.

The late innings saw a bit of everything: Rallies by both teams, a wild rundown featuring seven throws, two umpire's calls overturned and the ejection of Rays manager Joe Maddon.

The Rays also spent time trading gloves when they went to a five-man infield in the 13th. The switching positions led to a most strange putout: Brett Gardner grounded out and it was officially scored as 3-9 - first baseman to right fielder.

Kane lifts Blackhawks over Wild 5-2 in Game 1

CHICAGO (AP) Patrick Kane scored two goals for Chicago in the third period, including a terrific dash through the Minnesota zone for the tiebreaking score, and the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-2 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night.

Bryan Bickell also scored twice for the Blackhawks, who have won five in a row after losing their first two playoff games. Marian Hossa had a goal and an assist as the defending Stanley Cup champions made the most of two costly high-sticking penalties on Minnesota defenseman Jonas Brodin.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday afternoon.

The Wild showed no sign of any fatigue just two days after their dramatic 5-4 overtime win in Game 7 of their first-round series against Colorado. Playing in the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2003, Minnesota used third-period goals from Clayton Stoner and Kyle Brodziak to tie it at 2.

Brodziak's third goal of playoffs on a slick pass from Erik Haula silenced the sellout crowd of 21,116 with 13:04 left, but Kane then electrified the United Center once again with his 33rd career playoff goal.

The flashy wing carried the puck into the Minnesota zone, hesitated as teammate Patrick Sharp skated behind him, and then split Brodziak and Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin on his way to the net. He finished the play by roofing a backhand over goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's left shoulder at 8:22.

Kane then yelled "Showtime!" twice and pumped his right arm as the delirious crowd cheered wildly. But he was only getting started.

The 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner picked up his fifth goal of the playoffs on a nice pass from Ben Smith, and Bickell added an empty-netter as Chicago pulled away.

Bryzgalov had 17 saves in his first start since he was pulled from Minnesota's 4-2 loss to the Avalanche in Game 2. Darcy Kuemper took over for the Wild in net until he got hurt in the third period of the final game, and Bryzgalov made one save to help the Wild advance.

Kuemper is day to day with an upper-body injury, but Wild coach Mike Yeo said before Game 1 against the Blackhawks that the goalie was not in Chicago, making it unlikely that he'll be able to play Sunday.

Stiviano speaks about Sterling, recording

V. Stiviano says Donald Sterling's racist comments on an audio recording leaked to the public were not the first by the Los Angeles Clippers owner in conversations with her.

"There's been a number of occasions where Mr. Sterling and I had conversations just like this one. This was one of very many," Stiviano told Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20" in an interview that aired Friday night. "Part of what the world heard was only 15 minutes. There's a number of other hours that the world doesn't know."

Sterling told Stiviano in the recording that she should not post online photos of herself with black people, including basketball great Magic Johnson, or bring black people to Clippers' games.

The recording, which an attorney for Stiviano said was leaked by a third party, led to public outcry across the country and the NBA. Some sponsors dropped the Clippers and others re-evaluated their relationship with the NBA.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life, fined him $2.5 million and urged league owners to force him to sell the team. A three-quarters vote by the NBA owners is required to force him to sell.

Though Stiviano told Walters that Sterling should "absolutely" apologize, she said she still loves him like a father figure and does not believe he is a racist.

"I think Mr. Sterling is from a different generation than I am," she said. "I think he was brought up to believe these things ... segregation, whites and blacks. But through his actions he's shown that he's not a racist. He's shown to be a very generous and kind man."

Stiviano said that since the ban, Sterling has felt confused, alone and not supported by those around him.

"I think he's highly more traumatized and hurt by the things that he said himself," she said. "I think he can't even believe or understand sometimes the thing he says, and I think he's hurt by it. He's hurting right now."

A real-estate mogul, Sterling has been accused of racial missteps before.

The billionaire had paid a $2.76 million settlement to resolve a federal lawsuit accusing him of systematically excluding blacks and Hispanics from his rental properties. He also won a wrongful termination lawsuit by general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of various slurs and slights.

Ellis, Mavs top Spurs 113-111, force Game 7

DALLAS (AP) Monta Ellis scored 12 of his 29 points to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, Dirk Nowitzki added 22 and the Dallas Mavericks forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with top-seeded San Antonio, beating the Spurs 113-111 on Friday night.

The eighth-seeded Mavericks bounced back from consecutive losses by handing the Spurs their first road defeat when leading after three quarters this season.

Tony Parker scored 22 to lead the heavily favored Spurs, who are stuck in a tossup series after they won all four games against Dallas during the regular season. San Antonio took a nine-game winning streak against the Texas rival into the sixth postseason meeting between the teams.

The second Game 7 between these teams is Sunday in San Antonio. The Mavericks won the other one there in 2006.

Brassard lifts Rangers by Penguins 3-2 in overtime

PITTSBURGH (AP) Derick Brassard scored 3:06 into overtime to give the New York Rangers a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night.

Play continued after Brassard's goal, with Benoit Pouliot pumping a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury seconds after Brassard's shot. A review showed Brassard's flip from in front beat Fleury cleanly.

Game 2 is Sunday.

Pouliot and Brad Richards gave the Rangers an early 2-0 lead. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 shots and stuffed a late Pittsburgh breakaway in the final seconds of regulation.

Lee Stempniak and James Neal scored for the Penguins. Fleury made 24 saves but was helpless on the winner.

Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby was held without a goal for the 12th straight playoff game.

The Penguins have never lost a playoff series against the Rangers, rolling to victory in each of the four postseason meetings, including a 4-1 win in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2008.

They split their four games during the regular season, all of them coming before the Olympic break. The Penguins have looked sluggish in the ensuing three months while the Rangers played their best hockey down the stretch before needing seven games to dispatch Philadelphia in the opening round.

For a team that was supposed to be gassed playing for the third time in four days, the Rangers wasted little time jumping on the sloppy and surprisingly lifeless Penguins.

Pouliot gave New York the lead 5:04 into first period, capitalizing on a Pittsburgh turnover then splitting Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen before firing a wrist shot that caromed off Fleury's right arm and into the net.

Richards doubled the lead late in the period with his third and easiest goal of the postseason. Carl Hagelin beat Maatta to a puck in the corner and fed it to Richards, who had enough time in front to go from his backhand to his forehand and flip the puck by an overmatched Fleury.

Whatever sluggishness the Penguins felt after a three-day layoff vanished in the second.

Stempniak cut the lead in half by taking a nice drop pass from Beau Bennett then streaking down the middle and beating Lundqvist with a backhand 7:15 into the period.

Neal tied it just over 6 minutes later thanks to a rare mistake by Lundqvist, who deflected Neal's into the air then had it glance off his back and into the net. Lundqvist pleaded with officials that Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin had interfered with him while trying to make the save, but replays showed Malkin's high-stick swat didn't come close to touching the puck.

NOTES: New York went 0 for 4 on the power play and is 0 for its last 25 with the man advantage. ... The Rangers held out F Chris Kreider once again. Kreider wore a non-contact jersey during Friday morning's skate and his return from a hand injury remains uncertain. ... Penguins D Brooks Orpik missed his third straight game with an undisclosed injury.

Nets beat Raptors 97-83 to force Game 7

NEW YORK (AP) Deron Williams scored 23 points, shaking off a second-half injury, and the Brooklyn Nets forced a seventh game in their first-round series by beating the Toronto Raptors 97-83 on Friday night.

Despite appearing to hurt his left foot or ankle early in the third quarter, Williams dominated his matchup with Kyle Lowry and helped the Nets put it away with a 3-pointer with 1:13 left that made it 92-79.

Game 7 is Sunday in Toronto, with the winner advancing to face the defending champion Miami Heat.

It became the fourth first-round series ticketed for a do-or-die game in these playoffs.

DeMar DeRozan scored 28 for the Raptors, who will have to go the distance if they are to win a seven-game series for the first time in franchise history. They haven't won any postseason series since 2001.

Clippers coach meets with angry employees

LOS ANGELES (AP) Clippers coach Doc Rivers said employees on the team's business side considered not working for the franchise after owner Donald Sterling's racist comments were exposed a week ago.

Rivers met with team employees who were still upset and angry Friday morning, several days after Sterling was banned for life from the NBA.

"What I witnessed today, you realize this thing has touched a lot of people," Rivers said hours later at the Clippers' training complex in Playa Vista. "The people that didn't do anything are being harmed by this, and I wish we could find the right solution, and I don't have it."

Rivers made the trip downtown at the request of other top executives with the Clippers, who will play the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series Saturday night.

Instead of preparing for the biggest game of the season, Rivers spent the morning at the Clippers' team offices, listening to employees in ticket sales, marketing and other departments who took the brunt of public backlash against the Clippers in phone calls and other contact with the public.

"They really haven't had a lot of people talking to them," Rivers said of the team employees. "It was really hard to see them. I didn't realize. Ticket people, marketing people, and they're sitting there crying, and I felt so bad for them. I was thinking, `My God, we've been in this thing as players and as the coaches.' You forget that these are the people that are on the front line, and they work for the organization, too."

When asked why he made the trip at such a crucial time for his basketball team, Rivers said: "There was a need."

"I can't share everything, but it was important that I did it today, let's put it that way," the coach added. "They're just like our players. I'll say this much: Our players thought about not working. So did our employees, and they still felt that way. They needed somebody to ask them to continue to work and support us. So we're still trying to put this thing together."

Rivers has been on the Clippers' bench for less than a year, but the veteran NBA coach and player has emerged as the public face of the franchise during Sterling's ouster. Rivers also is the Clippers' senior vice president for basketball operations, giving him a voice in personnel decisions.

Sterling acquired the coach from the Boston Celtics last June in a trade for a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, signing him to a contract paying him a reported $7 million per year.

Rivers won an NBA title in 2008 and reached two NBA finals during nine seasons as the Celtics' coach. He coached just over four seasons with the Orlando Magic before taking over in Boston.

He also had a 13-season playing career for four franchises, even playing one season for Sterling with the Clippers in 1991-92.

Rivers refused to meet with Sterling shortly after the comments were made public, openly acknowledging his personal conflict about continuing with the club. He has been praised for his frankness and leadership during the crisis, but Rivers is reluctant to take credit.

"I don't know if I'm doing a good job," he said. "I'm just doing my job. We didn't know this was coming. Last time I met (with team employees) was before the season, and we talked about our goals as a group, being a championship team and a championship organization. They just felt like now, we've been knocked back down and we have to start all over again, and I told them, `Yeah, you're right, you do.' There's no quick solution to this. ... We've got to redo it, and I told them that.

"I told them I want to be there for them as much as I can, but it's hard."

Vick chooses to wear No. 1 with Jets

NEW YORK (AP) Michael Vick is the new No. 1 for the New York Jets.

The veteran quarterback initially chose earlier this week to wear No. 8 with his new team, but announced on Twitter on Friday that he was going with jersey No. 1.

"After trying on the (No.) 8 I decided that it's not the right fit for me," Vick wrote. "I'll be going with the (No.) 1 officially. Thank You."

Vick had worn the No. 7 through high school, college at Virginia Tech and throughout his NFL career with Atlanta and Philadelphia, but that jersey number belongs to current Jets quarterback Geno Smith. After signing with New York in March, Vick said he had no intentions of asking Smith for the number.

"I'm changing my number," he said then.

Vick asked fans on Twitter for their opinions whether he should pick No. 3 or No. 8. After Vick announced on his Instagram page on Monday that he chose No. 8, the Jets confirmed the decision on their website Thursday. Vick called an audible Friday and picked the number currently worn by punter Ryan Quigley.

There was no immediate word on the negotiations between Vick and Quigley for the number. Shortly after signing with the Jets, wide receiver Eric Decker worked out a deal with tight end Jeff Cumberland to get the No. 87 he wore for four seasons in Denver. Recently signed running back Chris Johnson has yet to choose a new number with the Jets. The No. 28 he wore for six years in Tennessee is retired by the Jets in honor of Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.

Vick would become the seventh player to wear No. 1 for the Jets, and the first quarterback, joining running back Mike Adamle, punters Quigley and Matt Turk, and kickers Dave Jacobs, Brett Conway and Mike Nugent.

Randolph suspended for Game 7 for punching Adams

NEW YORK (AP) Memphis forward Zach Randolph has been suspended for Game 7 of the Grizzlies' playoff series against Oklahoma City for punching Thunder center Steven Adams in the jaw.

The ruling Friday by the NBA leaves the Grizzlies without their leading scorer for the deciding game in Oklahoma City on Saturday night.

The play came with 6:42 left in the Thunder's 104-84 victory Thursday night. Randolph first elbowed Adams in the midsection with his left elbow, then struck Adams with his right hand.

Randolph is averaging a team-best 18.2 points in the series.

Pacers to have George for Game 7 against Hawks

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George spent much of Friday worried about whether he'd be suspended for Game 7 against Atlanta.

Not a chance.

Less than an hour after wrapping up practice, an NBA spokesman confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that league officials reviewed the tapes from Thursday night's altercation and determined none of the players who stepped onto the court would be punished for the decisive game of this first-round series.

It was no surprise to the Pacers.

"We're planning for him to be here until we're told he's not going to be in there," coach Frank Vogel said shortly before the decision was made public. "I think he stayed in the vicinity of the bench."

Players who leave the "vicinity" of the bench during a fracas can be suspended under league rules.

Few, including Stu Jackson, the league's former disciplinarian, expected that to happen with George, who took two slow, short steps onto the court before he was pushed back by assistant coach Popeye Jones. Jackson wrote on Twitter that he didn't expect the league to suspend George, Indiana's best player and an All-Star starter.

Losing George would have been a major blow to the Pacers' comeback hopes.

George has topped 20 points in all six games, has double-doubles in five of them and has been the one Pacers' defender able to slow down quick, shifty Hawks guard Jeff Teague. And it was George and David West who saved the Pacers season with a late Thursday night in Atlanta, too.

All the league's best regular season home team must do now to reach the second round and avoid the distinction of becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in league history to be eliminated in the first round is protect its home court. Lately, that's been a problem.

"My thing is that three of the last four times we've played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good," Vogel said. "So I don't think anyone from this team can think we're going to be OK just because we're back home."

The eighth-seeded Hawks understand.

They had a chance to wrap up the best-of-seven series at home and rallied from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter to take a five-point lead late in the fourth. Yet they still lost.

"We've responded well all year when we've been in difficult situations," coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. "Part of our response is going to have to be better execution. I think we have a lot of positive reference points from all year. Our group has been very good and very resilient. I have a lot of confidence in our group."

But this is going to be different.

The Pacers, who spent all season chasing the Eastern Conference's top seed, expect a raucous crowd for the first Game 7 to be played at home in the franchise's NBA history. Plus, they appeared to find a defensive solution to Atlanta's spread offense by going small in Game 6.

The Hawks, meanwhile, have only a day to adjust to Vogel's new rotations and are on their own historic quest.

A win Saturday would give Atlanta the distinction of having the fewest regular-season wins (38) of any second-round team since Detroit's 36-win team beat Milwaukee in the first round of the 1976 playoffs, according to STATS.

"We've won on that floor before, so we know we can do it," Teague said. "We just have to go out there and do what we do and play our style of basketball, and it will take care of itself."

George has plenty of motivation after a stressful week that included ceding home-court advantage for the second time in the series, losing his 2014 All-Star ring in a burglary that took place while he was playing Game 5, two elimination games and speculation that his 24th birthday celebration might be marred by the announcement of a one-game suspension.

There's only one thing that really would help him relax - getting a second straight win and setting up a second-round date with Washington.

"Now It's about getting it done," George said. "We should be ready for this moment."

Untapable wins 140th running of Kentucky Oaks

Louisville, KY -- Untapable lived up to her billing in Friday’s $1 million Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, drawing away in the stretch drive to a 4 ½-length decision. An overwhelming even-money favorite following convincing wins in two prior starts this year, Untapable continued to impress while providing Rosie Napravnik with her second victory in the premiere test for 3-year-old fillies.

“She was really great today,” said Napravnik, who became the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks when guiding Believe You Can in 2012. “She is magnificent.”

The start of the Oaks was delayed by Empress of Midway, who flipped over in the starting gate and had to be scratched after being successfully extricated. That allowed Untapable, who drew the far outside among 13 rivals, to move one spot closer to the rail and the bay filly broke favorably from post 12, establishing early positioning just behind front-runners Sugar Shock and My Miss Sophia.

“We ended up in a great position from the outside post,” Napravnik explained. “She runs her best when she can get in a great stride. She relaxes so nice. She’s growing up and is maturing.”

Untapable was kept in the clear on the outside down the backstretch, stalking in a perfect pouncing position about a length back of the lead, and was her given cue midway on the far turn. She advanced to overtake My Miss Sophia entering the stretch, powering past her rival in decisive fashion, and won for fun in the latter stages.

My Miss Sophia proved no match for the heroine but easily held second in a strong performance, finishing six lengths clear of third-placer Unbridled Forever.

Rosalind came next in fourth and was followed under the finish line by Thank You Marylou, Ria Antonia, Got Lucky, Sugar Shock, Aurelia’s Belle, Please Explain, Fashion Plate and Kiss Moon.

Untapable, who rewarded trainer Steve Asmussen with his second career win in the Kentucky Oaks, covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:48 3/5 and returned a paltry win payout of $4.

Now a four-time stakes winner, Untapable registered her first black-type score in the Pocahontas last September and opened 2014 with romping wins in the Feb. 22 Rachel Alexandra and March 29 Fair Grounds Oaks.

A daughter of leading sire Tapit, Untapable was bred in Kentucky by owner Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC. The top-class filly earned $576,600 on Friday, increasing her bankroll to $1,124,725 from a 7-5-0-1 record.

“It is just a great feeling,” Napravnik added. “I am so thankful for Steve (Asmussen) and for the Winchells having me on the filly. They have done such a great job.”

49ers exercise LB Aldon Smith's 2015 option

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The San Francisco 49ers know Aldon Smith still has plenty of work to do in order to repair his tarnished image and stay on track away from the football field.

They want to be an integral part of his self-improvement project, exercising their 2015 fifth-year contract option for the star linebacker on Friday. The team made the decision despite Smith's long list of legal trouble that included an arrest at Los Angeles International Airport just more than two weeks ago.

San Francisco faced a Saturday deadline to decide on Smith's immediate future, and general manager Trent Baalke suggested last week the team would keep the fearsome pass-rusher around for the near future at least - for 2015, "and `16, and `17 and `18." The 49ers will provide Smith with the support he needs to deal with his rash of off-the-field issues.

Yet Baalke has made it clear there must be positive change, and soon.

San Francisco realizes Smith still could face a suspension from the NFL for his DUI last September, and is expected to look for depth at linebacker during next week's NFL draft.

"Well, that remains to be seen. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Baalke said of a potential suspension for Smith. "There are still a lot of things that are going to factor into that decision at the league level and the club level. We're working very diligently in the background trying to make sure the right decisions are made long term, not only for Aldon but for this club."

In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police say the 24-year-old NFL star was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. The district attorney has referred the case for misdemeanor consideration.

That followed Smith's five-game absence last season to undergo treatment for substance abuse after a September DUI arrest. In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home. Investigators say several shots were fired, two partygoers were injured and Smith was stabbed. In the subsequent investigation, prosecutors say detectives found five unregistered, illegal weapons in Smith's house, including two Bushmaster rifles and an Armalite AR-10T.

Yet, what Smith brings on the field makes him one of the NFL's best at chasing down and pressuring quarterbacks.

Smith emerged as one of the league's most-feared pass rushers in 2012. He had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks that year, but failed to record a sack in his final six games including the team's postseason Super Bowl run.

Smith finished with 8 1/2 sacks and 34 tackles in 11 games last season, making eight starts. His 42 sacks are second-most in the NFL since he entered the league.

He and former teammate Delanie Walker were named in a lawsuit last September filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by a Northern California man who said he was shot at a party at Smith's house on June 29, 2012. The players charged a $10 admission and $5 per drink, the lawsuit said. Smith and now-Tennessee Titans tight end Walker were allegedly intoxicated on Smith's balcony when they fired gunshots in the air while trying to end the party, the lawsuit said.

Smith, selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft out of Missouri, had previously been arrested on suspicion of DUI in January 2012 in Miami shortly after the 49ers lost in the NFC championship game.

Baalke and the rest of the 49ers hope Smith will learn a lesson at last, and become a better person because of it. Smith said during a January interview with The Associated Press he was encouraged by his strides and confident he had made positive changes in his life.

"I'm a firm believer in the humanistic approach to everything. You continue to work just like you would with any family member," Baalke said. "We're a family. You don't just open the door and toss people out of it. You continue to work until they leave you no choice. That's what we're going to do. We're going to continue to work with him, we're going continue to find ways to support, not defend, we cannot defend the actions of others, all we can do is support."

Bruins distance team from racist tweets at Subban

BOSTON (AP) The Boston Bruins and Mayor Marty Walsh condemned racist slurs about P.K. Subban that hit social media after the Montreal defenseman scored in the second overtime of their playoff game Thursday night.

Bruins President Cam Neely issued a statement Friday calling the tweets "racist" and "classless." He said they came from an "ignorant group of individuals" who do not reflect the organization.

Walsh said in a statement that the tweets were "a disgrace. These racist comments are not reflective of Boston, and are not reflective of Bruins fans. I've said before that the best hockey in the world happens when the Bruins and Canadiens play each other, and there is no room for this kind of ignorance here."

Subban, who is black, scored twice and the Canadiens won 4-3 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.

Boston coach Claude Julien and several Bruins also condemned the tweets.

"It's just poor judgment, poor taste, and we don't associate ourselves with people like that," Julien said Friday, "and people who think that way are not what we call our fans. They may think they are, but we certainly don't support that at all. It's a shame that this is still going around in this day and age."

He noted that one of the Bruins players is Jarome Iginla, who is black.

Subban's brother, Malcolm, is a goalie with the Bruins' minor league affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island.

"Let's be realistic here about this," Julien said about the tweets. "It's something we don't support."

Left wing Milan Lucic, who plays on the same line as Iginla, said, "he's been treated with nothing but respect in Boston since he's been here."

Iginla joined the Bruins as a free agent after last season and shared the team lead with Patrice Bergeron with 30 goals.

Begeron also criticized the tweets, saying, "there is no room for this in 2014."

Subban's play has hurt Boston over the years and he has long been unpopular there. He was booed virtually every time he touched the puck Thursday night.

Only at the Derby: California Chrome came from humble start

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a way, the crazy story of California Chrome, the early favorite of this year’s Kentucky Derby, is also the crazy story of the Kentucky Derby itself. Listen: This will be the 140th time they’ve run the Kentucky Derby. Almost nothing in American pop culture has been around that long.

The first time around, a little thoroughbred named Aristides raced to the early lead (he was put into the race just to set a fast pace; even his owners didn’t think he could actually win). Then he just stayed in the lead and stayed in the lead, and finally the trainer just waved him on to the finish.

That was 1875. There was no National League then. It would be 20 years before they would play the first U.S. Open golf tournament, 36 before the first Indianapolis 500. James Naismith would not invent basketball for another decade and a half; football was being played with 20 people on each side. The very first game of indoor ice hockey was played just two months before the first Derby. There were nine players on each team.

The Kentucky Derby was dreamed up by a guy named Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr. -– he was the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Best anyone can tell he was sort of a spoiled man living the life of luxury, and so of course he went to England to see The Derby, pronounced “DAR-by” a race of 3-year-olds in Epsom (it’s now often called the Epsom Derby). A bit of trivia for you: The Derby got its name from Edward Smith-Stanley who was the 12th Earl of Derby. For 200 or so years now, races featuring 3-year-old thoroughbreds are often called Derby, even if the pronunciation is different.

MORE: Derby All-Access | California Chrome headlines talented Derby field

In any case, Clark so loved The Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris that he decided that his home state of Kentucky needed a world-class racetrack. Clark’s cousins John and Henry Churchill provided the land. Clark himself provided the energy and momentum; it seems that bringing racing to America was the first thing he had ever really cared about. The race track opened, and 10,000 people showed up to the first Kentucky Derby –- the women, according to John L. O’Connor’s “History of the Kentucky Derby” (written in 1921), had a portion of the grandstand dedicated to them and “the ladies in various costumes looked like so many parti-colored butterflies.”

So, basically, it was the Kentucky Derby as we know it right from the start.

There have been a few subtle changes. The famous twin spires were built in 1895. The race was shortened from 1 1/2 miles to it current 1 1/4 mile the next year. The red rose was made the official race flower in 1904. They started playing “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race around 1930.

But for the most part, the Kentucky Derby is the same race in the same place at the same time of year -- and it is as popular as ever, maybe even MORE popular than ever. More than 150,000 people will attend. More than 15 million people will watch on television -- more than half of them women.

How can the Derby still capture America’s attention?

The answer might have more to do with California Chrome than you would think.

* * *

So it goes like this: Two guys who have real jobs and no money to burn and almost nothing in common decided to buy a losing race horse together because, well, they just felt like it.

One guy, Steve Coburn, is a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy who wears a cowboy hat wherever he goes and says he was born with spurs on. Perry Martin is an old Chicago guy who owns Martin Testing Laboratories near Sacramento, Calif. They met because they both loved horse racing and because they each had bought 5 percent of a rather unfortunate racing filly named Love the Chase. Together they watched that filly lose. And lose. And lose.

In time, all their partners grew tired of the losing and decided it was just about time to sell off Love the Chase and make at least a little bit of their investment back. Thing is, Coburn and Martin had kind of fallen in love with the filly. They scrounged up $8,000 and bought her outright. They did this even after they heard a groom pronounce that anyone who would actually pay money to buy Love The Chase was a dumb ass.

They promptly decided to call their partnership DAP – Dumb-Ass Partners.

How much better can it get? Much better. After they watched her predictably lose a couple more races, DAP bred her with an equally lackluster horse called Lucky Pulpit, who had been anything but lucky. The stud fee for Lucky Pulpit was $2,500. It is telling that, according to various sources -- including a brochure I picked up from Claiborne Farm -- stud fees tend to “start at $2,500.”

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One day after California Chrome was born, Steve Coburn saw him and said the horse looked exactly like he did in a dream he’d had a few weeks earlier. “This little guy is going to do big things,” he said to himself.

Everything about this sounds like a sitcom, right? Two older guys, nothing in common, buy a broken-down horse, breed her with the cheapest horse they can find, and then believe they have a Kentucky Derby winner. Then, to add to the comedic possibilities, they send California Chrome to a kindly 77-year-old trainer named Art Sherman who last went to the Kentucky Derby in 1955, when he was a stable boy and slept on the train next to a horse name Swaps.

As it turns out, Swaps won that Derby with Willie Shoemaker riding. Sherman smiles when he says that he was not exactly important enough to be in the winning photograph.

If you were trying to NOT develop a Kentucky Derby horse, this is more or less how you would do it: Buy a losing horse, breed her with another, send her to a trainer who has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse.

But, at last, now we are getting to the point. For a good while as a 2-year-old, California Chrome showed some promise but nothing too earth-shattering. He won a couple of early races, but in September and again November he finished a distant sixth. The Chrome people decided to switch jockeys to Victor Espinoza, who had won the Kentucky Derby on War Emblem more than a decade ago.

MORE: Hats at the Kentucky Derby (photos) | Making a mint julep

In Espinoza’s first ride at Hollywood Park, in a race called King Glorious, California Chrome put on a charge that sent chills through every member of DAP. It’s the feeling horse racing lifers will spend millions and millions of dollars to feel … and usually never do. California Chrome was fourth at the final turn, when he suddenly turned on. He breezed by the other horses like it was easy, then he began pulling away, leaving the other jockeys looking at Espinoza’s purple silks with a jackass logo on the back. California Chrome won by six lengths.

“Victor said he was just cruising,” Sherman said in wonder after the race. “He said, ‘Please put me on more of those.’”

Next time out, in Santa Anita, California Chrome won by 5 1/2 lengths. At the San Felipe Stakes, California Chrome had become a bit of a phenomenon -- people loved the story. He went off as the favorite and had his best race. Chrome led wire-to-wire, pulled away for a seven-length victory. “Unbelievable,” Sherman said.

“People keep saying he’s only a California bred,” Coburn said of the doubters. “The horse doesn’t know that.”

Finally, there was the Santa Anita Derby, and now, horse racing fans everywhere watched closely. One more time, California Chrome blew away the field and won by five lengths. Chrome is the first thoroughbred in more than 100 years -- and perhaps ever -- to enter the Derby after winning four straight races by five-plus lengths.

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Now, California Chrome is the favorite at the Kentucky Derby. Coburn and Martin say they have been approached to sell controlling interest in California Chrome for $6 million. They said no. For one thing, they said it would break Art Sherman’s heart. But, for another, they find themselves in the middle of a sports miracle. And, really, how often does THAT happen?

* * *

So, that gets us closer to the point: There are stories that can only happen at the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the Derby has many shades. There’s the gambling, the drinking, the decadence, the depravity, the Hunter S. Thompson stuff. And then there is the underbelly of thoroughbred racing, which was recently exposed in an undercover investigation by PETA (and published in the New York Times). The investigation centered on successful trainer Steve Asmussen, whose horse Untapable will run in the Derby.

Then, though, there are the stories and they just keep coming and coming. There is Canonero II, a horse that had been losing in Venezuela. Nobody thought Canonero even belonged at the 1971 Derby -- he didn’t even merit his own odds, he was just thrown into the mutual field. Canonero won anyway. To follow Steve Coburn’s line, the horse doesn’t know the odds.

There was Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 shot who was purchased for $9,500 and driven more than 1,000 miles to the Derby in a horse trailer attached to his trainer’s pickup truck. He stumbled out of the gate and was several lengths behind the entire field for much of the race. Then, ridden by the great Calvin Borel, he went to the rail and ran by everybody and won going away.

On a beautiful day in 1913, in front of the biggest crowd in Derby history to that point (it was free to watch the Derby then) a horse named Donerail went off as a 91-1 long shot and then won.

Well, every year for 140 years there has been SOME sort of long shot story, some horse that nobody believed in, some trainer who had spent a lifetime waking up before dawn to teach horses how to run, some jockey who has come back from the abyss, some heart-warming twist that brings tears to the eyes, some owner who fell in love with the sport and has just kind of blundered around until finally getting here. 

Truth is, every year there are a BUNCH of these stories. This year, Wicked Strong is named to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing last year and a part of his earnings go back to benefit the victims. Uncle Sigh -- named for Uncle Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty -- raises money for Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps veterans injured in conflict. Rosie Napravnik on Vicar’s In Trouble tries to become the first woman jockey to win the Kentucky Derby and Gary Stevens on Candy Boy tries to become the first 50-year-old in almost 20 years.

And there’s a horse named Danza. After Tony Danza.

Most of all, there’s California Chrome. Being the early favorite in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t mean all that much. These are 3-year-old thoroughbreds and the only thing that can be said with any certainly about 3-year-old horses is that you have no idea how they will run.

And that, too, is part of the Kentucky Derby wonder. It’s all so much to pack into two minutes, and I think that’s why the Derby keeps mattering. Sure, there are all the traditions, but we will move on from tradition. There is all the history, but we don’t always honor history. There is the betting and the fashion and all that.

But mostly, there’s the story. How can you hear the story of California Chrome, his unlikely owners, his old-time trainer, his beautiful running style ... and not care? Everyone will stop to at least see how he does, right? If he wins, there will be movie rights to think about. If he loses, well, there will be another great story next year. That’s the magic of the Derby. The stories never run out.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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John McCain would 'probably' change Redskins name

Arizona Senator John McCain weighed in on the Redskins name controversy, saying Native American’s need to be consulted about the issue while on The Dan Patrick Show on Friday.

Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, has been embroiled in controversy over refusing to change the team’s name.

“If I were [Snyder], I’d call the Native American leaders together and I’d sit down with them,” said McClain. “I’d say ‘O.K., what is it that you want, how do you want me to do it?’”

The senator said he knows Snyder has specific rights as the owner, but the United States has a long history with Native Americans that needs to be considered. McCain mentioned Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears, saying they were a bad chapter in American history.

He said if Native Americans were offended by the Redskins’ name, it needed to be changed.

McCain reiterated he would like to see Snyder meet with Native American leaders and see if they couldn’t work it out.

The former presidential candidate concluded, “If they think it is that offensive and terrible …  frankly, I would probably change the name.”

While steadfastly refusing to even consider changing the team’s name, Snyder started the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, stating on the team’s website that he wants to help the Native American Community.

“The more I heard, the more I’ve learned, and the more I saw, the more resolved I became about helping to address the challenges that plague the Native American community,” Snyder posted on Redskins.com.

Many Native American leaders do not seem impressed by Snyder’s initiative, while some are actively distancing themselves from the foundation.

For his part, McCain goes on to say, “Myself, I’m not offended, [Dan], you’re not offended, but there are a lot of Native Americans that are.”

Whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the powers to make Snyder change the name, is another matter.

Native American leaders have used the Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA as a rallying cry to motivate the NFL to act on the Redskins name change.

While saying he wasn’t sure the two issues were related, McCain did react to the Sterling fiasco.

McCain says what Sterling said was “unacceptable” and “racist.”

Senator McCain had very kind words to say about Kevin Johnson, an integral part of resolving the Sterling incident, saying he is “one of the really great guys I’ve ever known.”

McCain expects to see Donald Sterling challenge the NBA’s ruling in court before this is all decided.

“[It’s] unacceptable,” said McCain. “I’m glad they [banned him]. End of story.”

Bill Leopold is an associate producer for NBCSports.com.

Gifted field set for 140th Kentucky Derby

The greatest two minutes in sports. The build-up for the Kentucky Derby is finally over, and the horses will line up in the Churchill Downs’ starting gate at 6:24 p.m. ET on Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby represents an extreme test for 3-year-olds, with participants asked to negotiate 1 1/4 miles for the first time in a bulky 19-horse field, and distance and/or traffic woes can undermine even the most logical win contenders.

Coverage begins on NBCSN at noon ET before shifting to NBC from 4-7 p.m. Following the race, NBCSN will continue coverage until 7:30 p.m. All coverage will be streaming on Live Extra.

For California Chrome, the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, post position was critical. He needed to avoid getting stuck in one of the inside posts (Nos. 1-3) and came away nicely from the draw in Gate 5.

His detractors will point to distance and trip, questioning his effectiveness over 10 furlongs and ability to settle into a comfortable spot given the other speed in the field, but I’m looking past any possible concerns.

California Chrome is my pick to win Kentucky Derby 140.

Analysis

California Chrome will look to establish favorable positioning on or close to the early lead. After dropping four of his first six starts, the chestnut colt started to blossom over the winter for trainer Art Sherman, reeling off four straight wins in convincing fashion, and California Chrome easily brings the best form into the Derby.

He made his last start in the strongest prep race, recording an impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and he earned a field-best 106 BRIS Speed rating for the 5 1/4-length decision. I loved his instant acceleration that afternoon, with jockey Victor Espinoza waiting until the top of the stretch to ask for run.

Santa Anita Derby runner-up Hoppertunity was one of his most dangerous foes when the field was drawn Wednesday, and that colt’s withdrawal Thursday morning improved California Chrome’s chances. In fact, three legitimate win contenders have been scratched in recent weeks, with Constitution and Cairo Prince bowing out as well, and other serious prospects like Top Billing, Honor Code and Shared Belief fell by the wayside earlier in the year.

Smarty Jones brought similar form in the 2004 Derby, displaying the best form by far of any 3-year-old in his prep races, but bettors questioned whether he could carry speed over 1 1/4 miles, sending him off as a lukewarm 4-1 favorite. He overwhelmed the competition with this talent and California Chrome can do the same.

In regard to the pace, there is some speed around California Chrome in the starting gate but a lot of the early types would prefer to sit up close –- I’m not expecting a 0:45 1/5-second opening half-mile liked we’ve witnessed the past two years. The pace should be contested but not overly fast.

The projected pace scenario favors California Chrome, who can wait to offer his best stride entering the stretch run.

Others in order of preference

Medal Count shows tremendous progress over the past five weeks, turning around his form in April with a pair of sharp performances on Keeneland’s Polytrack. A maiden winner on dirt, the Dynaformer colt has trained forwardly over the main track at Churchill Downs and I love his ability to corner: He boldly closed on the far turn of his last two starts and can rally into a threatening position at this critical stage of the race. The Dale Romans charge rates the best chance at an upset.

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Samraat isn’t drawing much love in the buildup to the race,but I consider him to be a legitimate contender. He sustained his first loss last time, recording a respectable second in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, and that setback could benefit the game colt. He may not be an ideal candidate for 10 furlongs with his pedigree. A stalker, he puts himself in position to challenge every time and remains eligible to outrun any distance concerns.

Intense Holiday recorded non-threatening efforts in his first four stakes starts but has come on at the right time for Todd Pletcher. A rallying winner of the Risen Star two back, he exits a troubled second in the Louisiana Derby and has signaled his readiness in recent weeks, training forwardly at Churchill Downs. A late runner, he could continue to show more Saturday.

Danza is not easily dismissed following his resounding upset in the Arkansas Derby. The lightly raced colt can be viewed as a candidate for regression following the career-best effort, but he appears to be holding his form for Pletcher, impressing in morning preparations at Churchill Downs. The stalker has the numbers to offer a serious challenge, netting a 104 BRIS Speed rating last time, and is eligible to make at least a minor impact if he negotiates a favorable trip.

Candy Boy can be granted a pass for his non-threatening third in the Santa Anita Derby following a two-month layoff, and he appears to have taken a step forward in his training, making several strong appearances at Churchill Downs. Must overcome the outside draw and a questionable pedigree for the distance, but I like his run style and believe the colt could have much more to offer than he showed last time.

Wicked Strong flew home through the stretch to post as smart win in the Wood but must prove he can transfer his form outside of New York (ran poorly in two Florida starts earlier this year). I didn’t like the outside draw for the one-run closer and taking a slightly negative view, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the promising colt rally into the frame in the latter stages.

Wagering strategy

Predicting final Derby odds is a fruitless pursuit, but I thought California Chrome could drift up to at least 4-1 before the scratch of Hoppertunity. Still don’t think he’s going to be an overwhelming, perhaps in the 3-1 or 7-2 range, and I will play him to win at that price and key him in the following exotics.

From a $100 bankroll:

$45 win 5

$10 exactas 5 over 6,14 ($20)

$5 exactas 5 over 4,16,18 ($15)

1 trifecta 5 over 4,6,14,16,18 over 4,6,14,16,18 ($20)

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