LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One rule considered inviolable in horse racing is never to turn down a suitcase full of cash.
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin understood that and, two months ago, when one of the sport’s far more well-heeled owners offered them $6 million for 51 percent of the first horse they had ever bred, the offer simply did not sit well.
They could have used the money: Coburn works for a Nevada company that makes the magnetic tape for credit cards and hotel keys. Martin owns a California laboratory that tests air bags and landing gear. They work five days a week and do not skip work for rounds of golf or to have cocktails at the yacht club.
They scraped together $10,000 to breed California Chrome, and it was not pocket change to them. Retirement savings were tapped. Mortgages were leveraged. Now here was a potentially life-changing windfall. It would mean moving their beloved 3-year-old colt from the barn of Art Sherman, their 77-year-old trainer.
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But what hurt worse was that the offer had come from someone who, as the cowboy-hat-wearing Coburn put it, “never put on a pair of boots” to go to work and who thought he could buy someone else’s hard work. It did not take them long to decide.
“Not only no,” Coburn told the would-be buyer, “but hell, no.”
So when jockey Victor Espinoza edged California Chrome into the starting gate to begin his victorious trip in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, not only had Coburn and Martin put their money where their mouths were, they were doubling down on something that has no price.
“We knew within our souls what kind of horse we had,” Coburn said.
The 164,906 spectators, the second-largest crowd in Derby history, learned what kind of horse California Chrome was when he beat runner-up Commanding Curve by 1¾ lengths in the $2,177,800 race. The 5-2 betting favorite ran 1¼ miles in 2 minutes, 3.66 seconds and paid $7 to win in the Grade I event.
California Chrome won his fifth race in a row and his seventh from 11 career starts. Sherman became the oldest trainer to saddle a Derby winner, surpassing Charlie Whittingham, who was 76 when he sent out Sunday Silence to beat Easy Goer in 1989.
Sherman was an exercise rider 59 years ago for Swaps, who won the 1955 Derby. He visited the horse’s grave last week, praying for a chance to experience winning the marquee race himself.
“I’m so thankful that I’m here,” Sherman said after the race. “I don’t think I change much anymore. I have a lot of friends on the racetrack, been around a long time.”
Sherman then elicited the biggest laughter in the postrace news conference, adding, “I’m just the same old Art Sherman, you know — except I won the Kentucky Derby.”
Commanding Curve, a 37-1 shot, competes for West Point Thoroughbreds and Issaquah resident Dennis Poppe is among the owners.
Danza finished third at 8-1 and Wicked Strong, at 6-1 the second wagering choice in a field of 19, was fourth.
California Chrome won his four starts before the Derby by a combined 24¼ lengths. In doing so, he had displayed an extra gear that seemed to find a slipstream in the final eighth of a mile of a race. Yet there were plenty of doubters, especially here in the bluegrass of Kentucky, where many hardboots are convinced they have the monopoly on the magic of sculpting a Thoroughbred.
There have been 106 Kentucky-bred winners of the Derby. Meanwhile, California Chrome is the fourth California-bred winner — and the first since Decidedly in 1962.
Skeptics thought there was no way the Western cowboys were stealing out of Kentucky with the local breeders’ hardware and birthright.
As soon as Sherman and California Chrome arrived at Churchill Downs last week, the comments started: The colt looked stiff in the mornings. The old man had pushed him too hard. There was no way an $8,000 mare named Love the Chase and a heretofore undistinguished stallion named Lucky Pulpit — who has a $2,500 stud fee — could have produced a horse swift and gritty enough to hold off a blue-blooded herd for the length of Churchill Downs’ stretch.
“Everybody kind of puts knocks on you,” Sherman said.
On the other hand, the betting public clearly had a favorable opinion of California Chrome — and rider Espinoza agreed.
He won the 2002 Derby and Preakness aboard War Emblem and thought California Chrome was a superior horse.
Espinoza held his breath a bit into the first turn when his colt nearly ran over front-runners Uncle Sigh and Chitu. But Espinoza nudged the colt, who sidestepped them as if he had thought of it first.
“I didn’t want him trapped; I wanted him to run his race,” Espinoza said of California Chrome. “When I hit the first turn, my horse’s head was just outside a bit from the front horses and that was it. I was like, ‘What a relief, I can let him stretch his legs.’ I think that won the race there.”
|California Chrome is the ninth horse to win both the Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif., and the Kentucky Derby.|
|I’ll Have Another||2012|
|Four of the 140 Kentucky Derby winners were bred in California.|
|Horse||Year of victory|