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Kentucky Derby champ California Chrome facing uncertain future

Kentucky Derby champ California Chrome is still running, but his future is uncertain.

LOUISVILLE — The story really was a fairy tale, even more remarkable through the lens of time than it was in the moment. It was a narrative about some very common people and their most uncommon horse, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness a year ago, turning reason on its ear and racing off into some place where dreams alone are the currency of greatness. On Saturday afternoon, 20 more horses (and the people around them) will chase history at Churchill Downs, and the winner will briefly find a place in America’s heart—perhaps for two weeks or perhaps for five, but probably not for much longer. And no matter who he is or who his human connections are, he will be following one of the most unlikely acts in modern racing history.

You remember California Chrome: He was the baby born when two guys who were dabbling in thoroughbred ownership at its lowest levels bought a skittish, slow-footed mare for $8,000 and bred her to an undistinguished stallion for a cut-rate $1,500. They sent their new baby, with four white feet and a white blaze on his face, to a 76-year-old former jockey who had been making a good living in the minor leagues of racing for nearly four decades, but who hadn’t been to the Kentucky Derby since he was teenager, when he slept in a railway car on a bale of hay next to Swaps, who would go on to win the 1955 Derby.

California Chrome won only two of his first six races and showed little hint of what lay ahead, but then suddenly reeled off four victories in a row, including a dominant performance in the Santa Anita Derby. His owners were Steve Coburn, a big-talking guy with a Stetson and dirty boots, and Perry Martin, who was much less talkative but no less cocky. His trainer was Art Sherman, a likeable guy who could name-drop Eddie Arcaro on you just like that. Chrome become one of those irresistible, warm and fuzzy pre-Derby stories. I wrote a long story in Sports Illustrated in which Coburn and Martin—they named their operation Dumb-Ass Partners because that’s what people called them when they bought Chrome’s mother—said they had already turned down millions for the colt. So what if they thought they had figured out the game, when the reality was that they had gotten spectacularly lucky?

The victory of California Chrome and the magic of the Derby

It all exploded into something much bigger when California Chrome ran straight into history on the first Saturday in May. Sherman’s son, Alan, danced and cried on the track that day with exercise rider Willie Delgado. Two weeks later the colt won the Preakness, and dragged the spring sport nearly into summer before losing in the Belmont Stakes. There he was cheered in defeat.

Nearly a year has passed. California Chrome has run respectably since his Belmont loss, but has won just one of five races. After the colt finished a solid second in the Dubai World Cup on March 28, Martin, the majority owner, sent Chrome to England to work with trainer Rae Guest in preparation for turf (grass) races in May and June, a decision that surprised Coburn, Sherman and everyone else connected with the horse, and which has turned the whole Chrome family just a little dysfunctional. At California’s Los Alamitos Race Course, Sherman has put an unnamed 2-year-old in Chrome’s stall because the 2-year-old has three white feet. “I miss seeing Chrome in there,” says Sherman. “So this guy reminds me a little of Chrome and that helps. I saw some video of Chrome over there, and he looks to me like he’s lost weight. I worry about him.”

California Chrome isn’t the only member of the team missing from the barn. Sherman also fired Delgado after he missed some training sessions in Dubai. This sort of thing happens often on the racetrack, but here it feels just a little sadder. The horse continues to run, but the fairy tale lies in tatters.

History Walks By: The story of California Chrome

In a sense, it all started to come apart last June, in the moments after the Belmont defeat. NBC’s Kenny Rice quickly grabbed Coburn for a post-race reaction and Coburn bitterly lashed out at the connections of Belmont winner Tonalist, who had been sick in the winter and had not run in either the Derby or the Preakness. “This is the coward’s way out,” said a red-faced Coburn, as his wife, Carolyn, tried to quiet him. (Those of us who had come to know Coburn on the Triple Crown trail weren’t entirely shocked by his meltdown. He is a good man, full of life, but he had shown himself to be fond of good times and big words, and it seemed entirely possible that he might embarrass himself at some point.) Coburn’s rant diminished the moment and what his colt had accomplished. He apologized a day later, but much of Chrome’s shine had been tarnished.

Chrome didn’t run again until September, when he finished sixth behind Bayern in the Pennsylvania Derby. Six weeks later California Chrome ran a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a very strong performance. In February he was second to the estimable (and now injured) Shared Belief in his first race of 2015, and follwed that up with his second-place finish in Dubai. More good races. Sherman expected him to return home after Dubai, but Martin had something else in mind. And know this about Perry Martin: He does not care what others think.

“Sure, we could have put him on a 17-hour flight back to Los Alamitos,” says Martin. “But I was trying to think in terms of what’s best for the horse. It was my decision to send him to Newmarket. It’s a beautiful place, with trees and pastures for gallops. Los Alamitos is fine, but here he actually has scenery. It’s good for his mind. I know Art didn’t take the decision well. But he’ll be okay.”

Chrome's Belmont loss doesn't mean Triple Crown needs to change

Coburn did not respond to an interview request—it’s quite a turnabout that one year after California Chrome’s greatest triumph, Martin is talking and Coburn is not—but both Sherman and Martin acknowledge that Coburn also disagreed with Martin’s decision. “Steve is my compass,” says Martin. “Whatever he suggests, that means I go 180 degrees the other way.”

According to Martin, the plan was to race Chrome in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on May 16, as a prep race for the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 17. Yesterday, Guest told the Associated Press that Chrome will not run the Lockinge, but instead will train up to the Prince of Wales. “It was a long journey to Dubai and then a long journey to here,” Guest told the AP. “And with all the time and climate changes, it’s just taken him another week to get over it all.” The schedule seemed challenging enough: the Lockinge is a straightaway mile, and the Prince of Wales is a clockwise oval; Chrome has only ever run counterclockwise on ovals. Additionally, Chrome’s only turf race was when he won last November on a very hard course (against a soft field of horses) in the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar. The turf at Newbury and Royal Ascot will be much softer and more challenging. Think of running in a field versus on a golf course. “I ran him in that one turf race because I knew the turf would be really hard,” says Sherman. “Over there, it’s going to be kind of heavy. I just don’t know. It’s a lot to ask.” And now with Guest having pulled the Lockinge off the docket, Sherman’s long-distance assessment that Chrome looked weary feels spot on.

Alan Sherman will soon go to England to help with Chrome’s training for the Lockinge race; Art remains the trainer of record and will be in attendance at Royal Ascot. It is an unusual plan, heavy on multiple cooks stirring the same soup. There were signs of discord even last spring. Martin was angry that Coburn had spoken on his behalf in criticizing Churchill Downs after the Derby. Sherman, a racetrack lifer, found it hilarious from the start that one stroke of good fortune in the breeding shed had turned Coburn and Martin into geniuses.

After the colt’s transfer to England, it had been widely assumed that California Chrome would eventually make his way back to the U.S. and run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic next fall at Keeneland. Not necessarily, says Martin. After Royal Ascot, Chrome will fly to Chicago, and Martin expects him to run in the Aug. 15 Arlington Million, another turf race. That race is an automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. “So that is a possibility,” says Martin. It is an audacious plan that could either flatter Chrome or diminish him.

Much of Martin’s planning centers on increasing California Chrome’s value as a stallion by proving his versatility. As a Derby and Preakness winner and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up, his dirt credentials are established. But Chrome’s value will always be dragged down by his modest pedigree, performances aside. Martin says that in Dubai he was offered $10 million for a share of Chrome. He turned the offer down because the buyer wanted control of Chrome’s racing and breeding career and Martin wants to keep control over all decision-making. He turned down $12 million before last year’s Derby for the same reason.

There have been rumors that California Chrome will be sent to Japan for his stallion career, but Martin says that won’t happen. “You’re going to hear an announcement from us in a week or two,” he says. “But he will stand in Kentucky. That’s where I want him.”

Sherman, meanwhile, just wants to see his horse, the one that changed his life. “So many  memories,” he says. “What a great ride we had.” Lately he’s been wearing his Kentucky Derby ring to work at Los Alamitos and showing it to anyone who asks to see. It’s a little big and clunky, not something a man would wear every day. But it’s also a piece of the dream that was.