From Dark Horse to Derby Favorite: The Unlikely Story of California Chrome

Josh Peter@Handle hereSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 30, 2014

Rob Carr/Getty Images

May 2008. Baltimore County, Md. The Fasig-Tipton horse sale for 2-year-olds in training. 

Greg Gilchrist, representing an ownership group in Northern California, sized up a chestnut-colored filly named Love The Chase. She was a tad small, but for the asking price of $30,000, he liked what he saw. So he bought her, shipped her across the country and, eager to assess the investment, took her to the race track.

She ran so poorly in her first three races that she was dropped into an $8,000 maiden claiming race, the lowest rung at Golden Gate Fields, a track outside of San Francisco. And when she won that race, Scott Sherwood, in charge of the ownership group, met with Gilchrist, the horse's trainer.

"What do you think?" Sherwood asked. 

"If you can find somebody who will give you $8,000 for her," Gilchrist said, "I'd get rid of her right now."

They did just that, to two men in the ownership group whose purchase seemed driven as much by sentimentality as smarts.

Either way, the investment is paying off.

That $8,000 horse became the mother of California Chrome, who is favored to win the $2 million Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Stuart Palley / Special to Bleacher Report

An unlikely story? Everything about California Chrome's story is unlikely. Consider the following:

• The horse's owners, who are almost as new to racing as their star 3-year-old colt, named their two-man venture "Dumb Ass Partners," a sarcastic nod to those who thought they were clueless. Their purple and green racing silks sport the image of a male donkey. (Jackasses. Get it?)

• The horse's jockey, Victor Espinoza, grew up learning to ride in Mexico City on—you guessed it—donkeys. (He is no jackass, having won the 2002 Kentucky Derby on War Emblem.)

• The horse's trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, who has never had a Kentucky Derby starter, stands to become the oldest trainer to win the race—and perhaps the only Derby trainer to have worked betting windows in his off-hours to help make ends meet. 


Back to May of 2009.

The ownership group in Northern California was looking to unload Love The Chase, and two of the group's members, first-time horse owners, emerged. 

One was Steve Coburn, a press operator at a 13-employee company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and drivers' licenses. He had settled on buying part of the horse only because his wife nixed the idea of buying a plane—too expensive for the middle-class couple from Topaz Lake, Nev. The other was Perry Martin, who owned a laboratory in Sacramento, Calif., that tests products such as air bags. Martin was testing his luck in racing for the first time.

The men had never met, but they were bound by their affection for the filly.

After a single phone call, they ponied up $8,000 for the horse, rendezvoused at Golden Gate Fields to register Love The Chase to their own names and sealed their partnership with a handshake. Nothing but a handshake.

With a new trainer, Monty Meier, they took the filly back to the track and matched her against $12,500 claimers. She finished last. They dropped her back down against the $8,000 claimers and returned to the track. Dead last again.

Love The Chase career results
TrackDateRace TypeFinish
Golden Gate FieldsDecember 4, 2008Maiden Claiming4
Golden Gate FieldsJanuary 4, 2009Maiden Claiming6
Golden Gate FieldsJanuary 23, 2009Maiden Claiming6
Golden Gate FieldsFebruary 7, 2009Maiden Claiming1
Golden Gate FieldsMarch 11, 2009Claiming7
Golden Gate FieldsApril 1, 2009Claiming8

Privately, Meier thought the owners should try to sell Love The Chase for $1,000, or maybe even give her away. Indeed, Coburn and Martin soon announced they would retire her from racing. But Meier was floored by what he heard next.

They planned to breed the undersized and underperforming horse.

"I would never go so far as to say anybody was a 'dumb ass,'" said Gilchrist, who denied that he or one of his grooms uttered those words when Coburn and Martin bought the horse—a story the owners have told in explaining how they settled on the name of their partnership. "But I question why anybody would want to breed the mare."

Without any expertise, Martin began studying the pedigree of their Maryland-bred horse and discovered she was two generations removed from Mr. Prospector, a classic sire and successful sprinter in the 1970s; three generations removed from Northern Dancer, another top-line sire and winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby; and—although tracing the pedigree any further back would have struck most seasoned breeders as pointless—a connection to Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Coburn was onboard.

After a failed attempt to breed Love The Chase to a stallion that shipped to South America, the owners paired their horse with Lucky Pulpit, a 10-year-old who had won three times in 22 starts. They paid a modest stud fee of $2,000. This time it took.

Almost a year later, Love The Chase gave birth to a 137-pound, chestnut-colored colt that had four white feet and a white blaze down its nose. In racing, white is known as "chrome." So California Chrome was one of the names Coburn, Martin and their wives wrote on scrap paper and threw into a hat when they gathered one day at a restaurant.

Stuart Palley / Special to Bleacher Report

Their waitress picked the winning name.

About two years later, California Chrome was ready to race, and Coburn and Martin wanted to run him in Southern California, where he would be matched against better competition. But they needed a trainer.

Martin, who had purchased more horses, had worked with a trainer named Steve Sherman, and he suggested they connect with his father, Art, a veteran trainer who had a modest operation of about 15 horses.

Art Sherman, the Dumb Ass Partners learned, had been the exercise rider on none other than Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner six generations removed from California Chrome. Who better to care for their horse, they decided, than a trainer who at 18 rode a railway car with Swaps and slept in the same boxcar with the horse on a three-day trip from Los Angeles to Louisville.

Art Sherman (left) as test rider for Derby-winning Swaps in 1955.
Art Sherman (left) as test rider for Derby-winning Swaps in 1955.Courtesy of Hollywood Park

The owners called Art Sherman.

They told him they wanted him to train "our Derby horse" and explained they had a typed-up plan to get their horse to the big race. Sherman, who once moonlighted at the betting windows to help pay the bills, chuckled at their naivete. After all, he had won more than 3,000 times as a jockey and a trainer, yet had never raced on or trained a Kentucky Derby horse.

But he was on board. They shipped the colt. Sherman declared him fit. And suddenly they were, well, off to the races.

California Chrome trainer Art Sherman
California Chrome trainer Art ShermanStuart Palley / Special to Bleacher Report

A second-place finish in his first race, a victory in the next and, following a fifth-place showing, another victory. A jump in class, two sixth-place finishes and a change in jockeys. The competition stiffened, and then California Chrome got rolling.

In December, he won the King Glorious Stakes, followed by another victory in the California Derby Cup. Next, in the San Felipe Stakes, he faced open company, top-caliber horses from outside of California. With the pressure ostensibly mounting as post time approached, Coburn jauntily handed out purple hats with the donkey insignia and invited fans into the paddock area as they saddled up their horse and lifted Espinoza, the one-time donkey-riding jockey, atop California Chrome.

The horse blazed to victory, after which Coburn passed out more purple hats and invited fans into the winner's circle.

Soon after, Martin and Coburn reported, they got an offer of $6 million for 51 percent control of the horse. They were vague in public about the details, with Coburn saying only that the offer came from the Middle East. But they were clear about their answer:

"Hell no."

In early April, when racing fans wondered if they would match their horse against other Kentucky Derby hopefuls in the Santa Anita Derby, the answer was "hell yes." California Chrome romped to a victory—giving him four consecutive victories by a combined 24 1/4 lengths, increased his earnings to $1,134,850 and stamped him as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome career results
TrackDateRace TypeFinish
Hollywood ParkApril 26, 2013Maiden Special Weight2
Hollywood ParkMay 17, 2013Maiden Special Weight1
Hollywood ParkJune 15, 2013Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes5
Del MarJuly 31, 2013Graduation Stakes1
Del MarSeptember 4, 2013Del Mar Futurity - Gr. 16
Santa AnitaNovember 1, 2013Golden State Juvenile Stakes6
Hollywood ParkDecember 22, 2013King Glorious Stakes1
Santa AnitaJanuary 25, 2014California Cup Derby1
Santa AnitaMarch 8, 2014San Felipe Stakes - Gr. 21
Santa AnitaApril 5, 2014Santa Anita Derby - Gr. 11

It's not just California Chrome who's drawing deep-pocketed bidders these days.

Two weeks ago, the owners got an offer for Love The Chase. Gilchrist, the trainer who advised the ownership group in Northern California to sell the horse for $8,000, called Martin on behalf of an owner who offered to buy the once-unwanted filly for $750,000—plus $250,000 for any of the three Triple Crown races California Chrome might win.

The response: No, thanks.

Recently, Martin told Sports Illustrated that Love The Chase has a breathing problem which, presumably, contributed to her struggles on the track. This came as news to her two trainers, Gilbert and Meier, and Cary, who bought Love The Chase as a yearling and sold it to the group in Northern California. They say they have no knowledge that the horse experienced breathing problems.

"She just did not have a lot of size and she just did not have a world of talent," Gilchrist said.

Now she is stabled at Harris Ranch Horse Division in Coalinga, Calif., where she has given birth to two full sisters to California Chrome—one that Martin and Coburn already have predicted will win the Kentucky Oaks, the sport's most prestigious race for fillies. Sherman chuckled again, but he won't rule it out, considering what has transpired thanks to owners who have defied convention and revel in their outsider status.

Steve and Carolyn Coburn; Denise and Perry Martin
Steve and Carolyn Coburn; Denise and Perry MartinCourtesy of Benoit Photo

This week—while the blue-blood owners and their famous trainers stay in $1,000-a-night rooms in downtown Louisville—Coburn, Martin and their wives are staying at the Hampton Inn in Frankfurt, Ky., an hourlong drive from Churchill Downs racetrack. Coburn has announced to anyone who will listen that on Saturday they will collect $2 million and the red roses reserved for the Kentucky Derby winner. Here, he said, is why he is sure it will happen:

• Coburn's birthday is on race day (he will turn 61).

• His sister died on Feb. 18, 1978, and California Chrome was born on Feb. 18, 2011.

• Thirty-six years separate his sister's death and his horse's birth, and it has been 36 years since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, who swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1978.

"It's a Hollywood movie coming to life," Coburn said.

And it is redemption, for a slow-running filly-turned-mare and a couple of self-proclaimed dumb asses.

Josh Peter is an award-winning writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of "Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour," co-author of "Death to the BCS" and has covered everything from the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Olympics, College World Series, Ryder Cup, Bassmaster Classic and Indian Stickball.


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