For a couple of Dumb Ass Partners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin sure know how to pick a horse.
Continuing one of the most unlikely runs to stardom in the sport's history, California Chrome won the 2014 Kentucky Derby on Saturday. At 2-1 pre-race odds, California Chrome joins 2013 winner Orb as the second straight pre-race favorite to win the first leg of the Triple Crown. There had not been a favorite to win the Derby in a half-decade prior.
But while Orb was a more tepid favorite in a largely indiscernible field, Victor Espinoza's horse had the roses around his neck from the outset.
Getting out of the starting gate well and settling into third place for the first half-mile behind Uncle Sigh and Chitu, California Chrome left little doubt about the outcome once Espinoza kicked it into high gear. The colt raced past his challengers to open a five-length lead late in the final stretch before slowing down to bask in the moment. Commanding Curve made a late charge to come in second place, while Danza and Wicked Strong came in third and fourth, respectively.
The margin of victory proved only 1 3/4 lengths, and California Chrome's 2:03.66 winning time was the slowest on a fast track in four decades. But none of that mattered. A horse can only race the field he's in, and the discussion was one of jubilation—not one of whether the race was "too slow" for spectators.
"He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life," trainer Art Sherman told reporters. "I knew my horse could run, and I knew he'd be the horse to beat once we got him here."
California Chrome's win makes him an overwhelming favorite at the Preakness Stakes in two weeks and perhaps the strongest Triple Crown threat since Big Brown in 2008. Covers currently lists California Chrome as a 6-5 favorite at Pimlico, and gambling expert R.J. Bell reported he is +180 (9-5) to win all three legs.
This would seem like a preordained snowballing toward the first Triple Crown since Affirmed if it weren't so unlikely.
|1||5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||Art Sherman|
|2||17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart|
|3||4||Danza||Joe Bravo||Todd Pletcher|
|4||20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||Jimmy Jerkens|
|5||6||Samraat||Jose Ortiz||Rick Violette Jr.|
|6||12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani||Peter Eurton|
|7||19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel||Billy Gowan|
|8||14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||Dale Romans|
|9||13||Chitu||Martin Garcia||Bob Baffert|
|10||7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano||Todd Pletcher|
|11||8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario||Mike Maker|
|12||16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher|
|13||18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens||John Sadler|
|14||3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.||Gary Contessa|
|15||15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.||Steve Asmussen|
|16||2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie||Mike Maker|
|17||9||Vinceremos||Joe Rocco Jr.||Todd Pletcher|
|18||10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez||Jose Garoffalo|
|19||1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik||Mike Maker|
|WD||11||Hoppertunity||Mike Smith||Bob Baffert|
There are any number of ways one could break this down. Starting with Sherman, to the ownership, to the horse itself, the 2014 Derby will forever be known as the one all preconceived notions about how to build a champion were fostered.
Coburn and Martin began with a modest goal: buy a horse. The pair purchased a mare, Love The Chase, that previous ownership couldn't give away for just $8,000. They spent another $2,000 to breed Love the Chase with Luck Pulpit—a horse whose claim to fame is a seventh-place outing at the 2004 Santa Anita Derby.
The pair took themselves so seriously they titled their ownership group Dumb Ass Partners. In a world where pretension and entitlement can consume people at the top levels of the sport, Coburn and Martin were a decided breath of fresh air. It's worth noting that the duo turned down a $6 million offer for just a 51 percent interest in California Chrome.
Part of the reason they turned the unnamed bankroller down? It would have meant replacing Sherman, the 77-year-old first-timer who became the oldest trainer in history to win a Kentucky Derby. Sherman, a decades-long fixture as a mid-tier trainer, had never worked with a Derby horse prior. His most notable experience was as an exercise rider for Swaps, the 1955 Derby champion.
In the world of high-stakes horse racing, this is somewhat common. A big-moneyed investor sees a promising horse, makes its initial ownership an offer it cannot refuse and repurposes the horse through the typical channels. The difference in this case was that Martin and Coburn weren't selling.
"The offer we got for this horse was from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work," Coburn said. "And to me that was kind of an insult. Somebody who's got that much money who thinks they can step in and buy people who have worked so hard to get to this point, to me that was a slap in the face."
That proved not only good news for Sherman but also for Espinoza, whose own flailing career has been resuscitated by this unlikely ascent. The jockey atop 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner War Emblem, Espinoza hadn't earned a notable win in more than a half decade before pairing with California Chrome. He'd finished outside the nation's 20 best jockeys in five of the last six years, failing to even come even particularly close to another Triple Crown win.
For all the change California Chrome has done in his life, Espinoza has begun doing his part to help others. Ten percent of his income has been donated to City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.
"It changed my life to see those kids," Espinoza told Bill Dwyre of The Los Angeles Times. "They don't know what life is about. I hope I make a change for this Kentucky Derby win to have more earnings for the kids that have cancer, and the City of Hope."
California Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza picks up $144,280 for Derby win. His agent Brian Beach gets $36K of that.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) May 4, 2014
Going forward, California Chrome's next helping hand could be the sport itself. The first Saturday in May remains one of the most anticipated events on the sports calendar, and anticipation will undoubtedly be high for the Preakness. But one false start or slip up in Pimlico, and the Belmont will come and go with only a cursory glance from the viewing public.
It's been nearly four full decades since the last Triple Crown winner. It's time. The sport needs it. California Chrome has the firepower resting in his body to pull it off.
What remains to be seen is if one of the unlikeliest Kentucky Derby-winning groups in history can transform to the unlikeliest Triple Crown winning group in history. Based on what we saw Saturday, we'd remiss to count them out.
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