The world of sports has its unlikely stories. Now it has a topper, a horse named California Chrome. The Kentucky Derby has no idea what’s about to hit it.
Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby became a backdrop for the improbable. Make that the unbelievable.
It wasn’t just that the gorgeous chestnut horse from trainer Art Sherman’s barn ran away with the $1-million Grade I race. Based on the horse’s previous outings, the victory was no surprise. Nor was the winning margin of 51/4 lengths, making his last four victories, all under rides by veteran Victor Espinoza, total 241/4 lengths of daylight.
FOR THE RECORD:
Santa Anita Derby: In the April 6 Sports section, a column said that the horse Not For Love was the mother of Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome. In fact, Not For Love is the sire of Love the Chase, California Chrome’s dam. —
Going into Saturday’s race, which attracted a crowd of 35,241 to get a look at this new 3-year-old star, California Chrome had already established himself as the favorite to win the Derby.
This was just frosting on that cake, as well as a first-hand beat-down for two other Derby prospects, trainer Bob Baffert’s Hoppertunity and John Sadler’s Candy Boy. They got a nice view of California Chrome’s rear end, finishing second and third, respectively, and likely will try again in Louisville on May 3.
Going in, we all knew about the horse. We also knew about Sherman, the 77-year-old veteran whose most important previous trip to Churchill Downs was as an 18-year-old exercise rider for Swaps, who won in 1955.
After this Santa Anita Derby, Sherman started to refer to California Chrome as “my Swaps.”
What wasn’t that well known were the hows, whys and holy-cows-this-can’t-be-trues of the connections.
Ah, where to start.
California Chrome was bred in California. If he wins the Derby, he will be only the fourth horse from the Golden State to do so. He trains at Los Alamitos, where other Triple Crown prospects have yet to tread.
His mother was named Not For Love, a mare who won one race and was purchased for $8,000 by Steve Coburn of Wellington, Nev., and Perry Martin of Yuba City. Breeders from the massive farms behind all those white fences and manicured grounds in Kentucky wouldn’t wipe their feet on a doormat outside the barn of an $8,000 broodmare.
California Chrome was Not For Love’s first foal. Eventually, the owners contacted Sherman, asked him to train their baby, called him their “Derby horse” and presented him with a schedule of races that would get them to Churchill Downs. Sherman giggled quietly, but liked these neophytes and their enthusiasm so much that he took the horse.
It needs to be understood that, most of the time, a Derby horse — especially such a heavy favorite — comes from the careful planning and bloodline study of rich people and families who have been in the business forever. They have millions and spend it breeding the best to the best so they can have more millions.
Coburn described himself and Martin as “working class people.” He said each still get up around 4 a.m. and make long drives to work. Neither is starving, but neither would even make the conversation about blue bloods.
They were asked how they would celebrate Saturday night. Coburn said, “We haven’t decided yet which McDonald’s to go to.”
Martin runs the Martin Testing Lab. “We test high-reliability equipment, the kind where somebody dies if something goes wrong,” he says.
Coburn has a farm near Lake Topaz, Nev., and is a press operator at a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and drivers’ licenses.
For their big moment Saturday, Martin wore a black shirt and black Kentucky Derby cap, and Coburn wore a tan cowboy hat and jeans.
They named California Chrome by going to a restaurant with their wives, writing down a bunch of names and putting them in a hat. A waitress pulled out California Chrome. The racing colors, emerald and purple, are their wives’ favorite colors.
When the men bought Not For Love, a horseman nearby remarked that only a “dumb ass” would purchase her. Now, they run under the silks of DAP Racing, “Dumb Ass Partners.”
California Chrome has a favorite horse treat, Mrs. Pasture’s Paddock Cakes.
“I’ve had some,” Coburn said. “They’re good. Taste kind of like granola.”
It was pointed out to Coburn and Martin that this high level of thoroughbred racing is usually the terrain of Kentucky blue bloods.
“The horse don’t know he’s no blue blood,” Coburn said.
California Chrome is as explosive a talent as any that have recently pursued the Triple Crown. Presuming he stays healthy, he will face 19 other starters in something that has become more cavalry charge than horse race. Nothing is guaranteed.
But there is no question of the talent. California Chrome is probably misnamed. Looking at how he accelerated at the top of the home stretch, both Saturday and in his three previous races, he should be called Bye Bye. Or, if he wins the Derby, Louisville Slugger.
Track announcer Trevor Denman brought him home to the call of “Absolutely sensational.”
That it was.
Sherman, still coming to grips with what he has, said, “He’s kind of freaky, and I’m enjoying it. I can’t believe the races I’ve been seeing. A length or two might have been all right with me.”
The race was 11/8 miles. The Derby is 1 1/4. Espinoza, who was actually easing back California Chrome in the last 75 yards or so, was asked about the Derby distance.
“I don’t think it will be a problem,” he said.
The only problem for California Chrome is getting everybody else to believe his story.