History Walks By: The story of California Chrome

Tuesday June 3rd, 2014

Love the Chase posed with Steve Coburn a few weeks before California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Late on Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park, California Chrome will be favored to end thoroughbred racing's 36-year Triple Crown drought. He is the 13th colt to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed swept the series in 1978 (following Secretariat in '73 and Seattle Slew in '77). Of the previous dozen 3-year-olds, the first 11 failed to win the 1½-mile Belmont and the most recent (I'll Have Another in 2012) was scratched with an injury on the morning before the race. Most of those horses seemed poised to finish the job, only to fail in ways as varied as the colors of jockeys' silks; the near-misses have dogged the sport and have, in recent years, caused some to call for changes to the Triple Crown's traditional schedule of three races in five weeks.

Yet few horses through the long life of the drought have inspired more optimism than California Chrome. He brings a six-race winning streak into the Belmont, and following his victories in the Derby and the Preakness, he has trained brilliantly. The latter race scarcely left him tired, and his workout last Saturday morning at Belmont had veteran railbirds gushing with effusive praise. The racing community stands poised with him, on the precipice of history. "There might be 100,000 people here on Saturday," said veteran trainer Shug McGaughey, who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb, "and the only ones not rooting for California Chrome will be the owners and trainers of the other horses in the race."

If California Chrome wins, and completes the Triple Crown, he will also finish off a remarkable journey, comprised equally of uncommon faith and unlikely coincidences, an improbable trip that could have ended at any step along the way.

LAYDEN: California Chrome's quest for the Triple Crown

Begin with his mother, a slow-running filly named Love the Chase. Her mother was Chase It Down, foaled in 1997 by Maryland breeders Dr. Thomas Bowman and Milton Higgins. Chase It Down ran seven times in 14 months before winning a race and lost both of her last two starts.

Becky (Bowman) Davis (then-farm manager, Northview Stallions): Chase It Down was a very attractive filly -- tall, lean, elegant. I took her to a yearling sale and we put a $40,000 reserve on her and nobody met that reserve so I brought her home. I tried selling her again a couple years later with a much lower reserve and nobody met that, either. She didn't have much success at the racetrack. She was very high-strung and nervous.

Dr. Thomas Bowman (owner, Chase It Down): We had hopes that Chase It Down would be a good racehorse, because that's what you always hope, but in reality it doesn't happen most of the time. Then we hoped she would become a broodmare.

In the winter of 2005, a year after Smarty Jones had become the third colt in three years -- and the sixth since 1997 -- to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown and fall short in the Belmont, Chase It Down was paired for breeding with a stallion named Not For Love, who had retired from racing in 1995. He was exquisitely bred by the Phipps family, sired by the prepotent Mr. Prospector, out of the Northern Dancer mare Dance Number. Despite the royal blood coursing through his veins, Not For Love was workmanlike as a race horse, competing mostly at the allowance level. He did, however, finish in the money 18 times in 29 career starts.

Shug McGaughey (original trainer of Not For Love): He was a nice horse, good pedigree, but did not fulfill expectations at the race track. He was blocky-type horse, more like a sprinter.

Graham Motion (trained Not For Love in his last seven starts): He was a lovely horse to be around, a very classy horse. Very well put-together, and on the race track a beautiful mover. From a racing perspective, he was a talented horse, but just a notch below being a top horse. He wasn't a grade I-type horse, or a grade II horse, more like a grade III horse. But he was always a nice horse to be around at the barn in the morning. At that point in my career (1995) it was a big deal for me to get a horse like that.

Not For Love was better in the breeding shed than he was at the racetrack. By 2003 he was the top sire in U.S., outside Kentucky, a distinction he would hold for four consecutive years. He was bred to Chase It Down in the winter of '05.

Bowman: If Not For Love isn't my favorite stallion, he's certainly right up there. His offspring basically run forever, and by that I mean years. He sires soundness.

The mating of Chase It Down and Not For Love produced a chestnut filly who would be named Love the Chase. After a year, Bowman and Higgins sent her and another Not For Love baby, a colt, to Cary Frommer, a South Carolina pinhooker -- a person who buys and sells horses for profit -- with a reputation for careful and humane treatment in the breaking of yearlings. Frommer eventually bought both horses for $30,000 each.

Davis: I talked to Cary after she had the filly for a while and she said, "The filly is beautiful. She hasn't done a thing wrong." But she also said the filly was a little nervous. And she wasn't sure how the filly would hold up to training, mentally. And of course, she didn't turn out to be much of a race horse.

Cary Frommer: A lot of times I buy babies from the Bowmans because they breed good, tough babies. That filly, I'd like to say I realized she would someday be the dam of the [Derby and Preakness winner], but she basically just showed up every day and did her job. Businesslike. Good temperament. Nice little horse. She was a smaller filly, well built but not tall. She was not up to the caliber of horse that people want at a sale.

At the 2008 Fasig-Tipton Midatlantic 2-year-old sale, Frommer sold the two offspring of Not For Love, the colt for $300,000 and Love the Chase for a break-even $30,000. The buyer was northern California-based trainer Greg Gilchrist, who was acting on behalf of Scott Sherwood, the founder of a syndicate called Blinkers On Racing Stable.

Greg Gilchrist: The reason we bought [Love the Chase] is that the syndicate was looking for horses in different price ranges. That price range, $30,000, that's a difficult range. Most of them have some deficiencies at that level. She was a small filly. We were taking a chance that she would grow. At that price, you're almost always taking a chance.

Scott Sherwood: When Greg goes to these sales, he's trying to look into the future. The filly had a good stride, was well balanced. But she just never really grew. She couldn't keep her weight on, and when she got into the rigors of the racetrack, it took a toll on her.

Love the Chase made her debut on Dec. 4, 2008, at Golden Gate Fields, finishing fourth in a 5 ½-furlong race. She ran two more sprints in January 2009 and finished sixth in each.

Gilchrist: She ran her heart out, but just didn't have very much ability. She wasn't tiny, but she never did grow and she was very much to the feminine side. I told Mr. Sherwood, "We're in deep water here. Let's drop her to the bottom [level of racing] and run a little longer." We put her in an $8,000 claiming race at a mile. She won pretty easily, but it was probably the slowest mile race in California that year. It was like watching horses run in slow motion. I told Mr. Sherwood, "I don't think she'll ever win another race."

LAYDEN: California Chrome: The Accidental Favorite

California Chrome's victory in the Kentucky Derby was his fifth straight with jockey Victor Espinoza.
Bill Frakes/SI

Love the Chase was owned by about 12 members of the syndicate. After her lone victory, Sherwood decided to dissolve the partnership in Love the Chase. Two of the filly's owners were Steve Coburn, now 61, and Perry Martin, now 58. Love the Chase was Coburn's first horse and Martin's fifth. Coburn had been introduced to racing by his second wife, Carolyn.

Steve Coburn: Carolyn taught me how to play the ponies. We would make weekend trips [from northern California] to Del Mar and Santa Anita. One year she bought me flying lessons for Christmas. A little while after that she said, "We need a tax write-off." I said "I'm going to buy an airplane." She said, "That is not going to happen."

Carolyn Coburn: I saw an ad on TVG for Blinkers On Racing. They listed two horses for sale. I thought that was a better idea than buying an airplane. One of the two horses was Love the Chase. I call her Pumpkin.

Perry Martin: I went to the racetrack when I was a kid in Chicago. When my wife [Denise] and I were dating, we had a quite a few dates at the racetrack. Then I quit going. We moved to California in 1987, had kids, worked at jobs. There were other things to do. We got back in with Blinkers On in 2007, with one horse. Then the next year we bought parts of five horses. One of them was Love the Chase. After that one win, Scott announced that he wanted to dissolve the partnership. I said I wanted to buy the filly. She wasn't a good performer for us, but I loved her breeding. She's inbred three-by-three to Numbered Account. She had Mr. Prospector on the Not For Love side. I really wanted to get into the breeding business and this seemed like a good place to start.

Scott [Sherwood] said he had multiple interests to buy the filly. The price was $8,000. He gave me Steve's number. We went to the racetrack to look at her. A groom walked by and said, "Anybody who buys that horse is a dumb-ass." We looked at each other, shook hands and said, "We're the dumb-ass partners."

Steve Coburn: Our partnership is on a handshake. And give Perry all the credit. He researched the bloodlines and it turns out Love the Chase's bloodlines were through the roof.

Still, Coburn and Martin raced Love the Chase twice more, both times in claiming races, where she could have been purchased by anyone with a check in the amount of either $16,200 (the first race) or $25,000 (the second). It was unlikely that a buyer would emerge at those prices for such an unaccomplished filly, but it was a gamble nonetheless. Had somebody claimed Love the Chase, there would, in all likelihood, have been no California Chrome.

Coburn: Thank God nobody claimed her.

Martin: When we bought her in April, it was the end of the breeding season. So we thought we would take a couple more shots at racing. We had a vet scope her and he found a breathing problem that only would show up in a stressful situation.''

Monty Meier (trainer for Love the Chase's final two races): She was pretty looking and fairly well-bred, but she was a nervous filly. When she came to me, I took her out to my barns at the Pleasanton [Calif.] Fairgrounds, because it was quieter over there and we thought she might respond a little better. But she still didn't really calm down and she didn't eat real well. I ran her twice and she didn't run real well. I sure never thought she would produce a monster like California Chrome.

Coburn: She didn't want to be a racehorse.

Love the Chase was sent to Harris Farms Horse Division in Coalinga, Calif., and bred to the stallion Redattore in the winter of 2010, but she did not get pregnant. A year later Coburn and Martin tried breeding her again, this time to the 10-year-old stallion Lucky Pulpit, who was also standing at Harris Farms. Lucky Pulpit had been bred by Larry Williams and raced 22 times over from 2003 to '06. He finished in the money 13 times and earned $209,928. In '04 he had been pointed toward the Kentucky Derby.

Larry Williams: We had him on the Derby trail in 2004 and that was exciting for us. Then he came down with a throat infection, which limited what he could do. He did not run well in the Santa Anita Derby [Lucky Pulpit finished seventh]. Everyone is excited when you have a horse on the Derby trail and then when you're off the Derby trail, it's not as much fun.

Cliff Sise (initial trainer of Lucky Pulpit): He was a pretty horse, with some natural speed, but he had that breathing problem, and he was ornery. He was well-bred. Very sound. Just never could cover a distance of ground.

Todd Pletcher (trainer of Lucky Pulpit in 2006): "By the time we got him, he had become wise to the ways of the racetrack. He basically didn't want to train anymore. He wouldn't breeze unless you breezed him out of the gate. But he was a very good-looking horse, a chestnut with a lot of chrome [white markings]. Well built. Striking. He would catch your eye.

Williams: After we retired him, there was very limited interest from Kentucky breeding farms, and at a pretty low dollar value, around $20,000 or $30,000. We decided to do it ourselves and send him down to [Harris Farms Horse Division president] John Harris. [Lucky Pulpit's] third crop [of foals] gave us a Derby horse, Rousing Sermon. [Lucky Pulpit] was bred to Love the Chase in his fifth crop.

Perry Martin (left) and Steve Coburn (right) spent less than $10,000 for the horse that won the Derby.
Bill Frakes/SI

The breeding of Love the Chase to Lucky Pulpit cost Coburn and Martin only $1,500, according to Williams. (Lucky Pulpit had been standing for $2,500, but lower fees were sometimes negotiated). The male offspring of Love the Chase and Lucky Pulpit -- the foal who would become California Chrome -- was born on a rainy February morning in 2011 at Harris Farms.

Jeanne Bowers-Lepore (staff veterinarian at Harris Farms Horse Division): During foaling season, we have a number of young veterinary students working to help us. We call them the "Foal Patrol." One of them called me after Chromie was born and said there was a lot of bleeding. She thought the mare might have ruptured a uterine artery, but that didn't make sense because she was so young. Well, it turns out, California Chrome has a crooked foot on his front [right] and he dragged that across the uterus on the way out and [Love the Chase] did bleed very significantly. We were in danger of losing her for a little while.

For the next month or so, the mare was hooked up to a catheter and we were giving her anticoagulants. The foal stayed with her and they were quarantined from the rest of the foals. Now, all of our foals are handled on a daily basis: they get their temperature taken, they get looked at, they get scratched. With Chromie it was a lot more. Someone was visiting his mother two or three times a day, and he would get right in our faces. So, you're here to see my mother. Well, here I am too. So of course you scratch him and spend time with him, too. And then the owners started giving him those cookies [the Mrs. Pasture treats that Chrome still devours], and he really liked those. He got a lot of attention, and he learned that people were good."

Carolyn Coburn: We got to the farm right after he was born. We started calling him Junior. He loved these little cookies, Mrs. Pastures treats, and we started giving him those cookies right away.

Steve Coburn: The first time I saw him I said to Carolyn, "We're staying in the game with this one."

Martin: We got to Harris Farm two hours after he was born and he was already running circles around Momma. We had seen lots of foals at that point. We knew he was something special.

After a slow start in 2013, trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome have won their last six races.
Associated Press

Early in 2013, Coburn and Martin sent California Chrome to Southern California to train with Art Sherman, then 76, a successful (but not famous) trainer, whose son, Steve, they knew from the Northern California circuit. Art Sherman had been a jockey for 24 years, until 1979, when he became a trainer. He was one of two children born to Harry Sherman, a barber who moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and his wife, Rose, and he spent most of his life around horses.

Art Sherman: Horse racing has been great to me. I started on the racetrack when I was 15 years old working for Rex Ellsworth. I loved living in tack rooms when I was a boy. Racing has given me a good life, my wife [Faye] and I have been all over the world. But I never had that really great horse. Then I get this horse, California Chrome, and this guy Perry Martin sends me an email and the subject says, "The Road to the Derby." I had to laugh at that. Hey, it's nice to have confidence, but these guys were pretty green. It's their first horse!

Well anyway, the horse gets here and he's a gorgeous chestnut. Not real robust, not a real thick chest. He's got four white feet and sometimes that can be a problem because the tissue can be a little soft. He's also got this beautiful blaze on his face.

Coburn: When it was getting to be time to race, Carolyn and I and Denise and Perry met at a restaurant in Galt [Calif.]. We had to give him a name. Each of us wrote a name on a piece of paper and we put them in my hat. It's a 10-year-old Larry Mahan special. We asked the waitress to pick out the slips of paper in order. One, two, three, four. She had to stand on a chair to reach. The first name that came out was mine, California Chrome. The Jockey Club accepted that one.

Jerry Hollendorfer (veteran California trainer): The rumor around the racetrack last year [2013] was that Art Sherman had a horse that could run. First time I saw [California Chrome], I thought, Well, he looks the part. Not too big, not too small. Walks correctly. He looks about the same now.

Alberto Delgado (California Chrome's jockey for five of the colt's first six races): One morning Art Sherman asked me to work this horse half a mile at Hollywood Park. I was blown away. I came back to the barn and said, "How many races has this horse won?" Art said, "He's a baby, he hasn't even raced yet!" I said, "Man, I want to ride this horse." I worked him four or five times before his first race.''

Sherman entered California Chrome in a 4½-furlong maiden sprint at Hollywood Park on April 26, 2013. He finished second, beaten a length by Time for a Hug.

Walther Solis (trainer, Time for a Hug): Art's barn really like [California Chrome]. They were talking about him. We both liked our horses. My horse was pretty fast, I knew he would be tough to beat going 4½ furlongs. And I beat Art's horse that day. But that horse, California Chrome, he was training really well. They had him training with other horses for a while and then he started training alone because he was going too fast.

Three weeks later, California Chrome scored his first victory, in another 4½-furlong maiden sprint at Hollywood Park. In second was Charisma Code, trained by Dean Pederson.

Dean Pederson: ``I remember seeing Art's colt in the paddock before the race. He wasn't very stout and he got a little hot and washy that day. He looked a little lightweight to me. But all credit to those guys. Usually horses get worse and worse. He got better and better.''

Delgado: After that first [win], after we took the picture in the winner's circle, I jumped off and I told [Steve Coburn], "This horse is going to win the Derby next year." The next morning after we won that race, I was training a horse at Santa Anita in the morning and he dumped me. I broke my ankle. I told the doctor, "I gotta get back. I'm riding a horse that's going to win the Derby."

On June 15, 2103, with veteran jockey Corey Nakatani riding in place of the injured Delgado, California Chrome finished fifth in the Willard Procter Memorial, his first race against horses not bred in California. Delgado was back aboard Chrome on July 31 at Del Mar, when he won the Graduation Stakes for Cal-breds.

Tom Robbins (then the racing secretary at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club): Nine out of 10 times, the winner of the Graduation would go to a [California-bred] stake called the I'm Smokin, which is six furlongs. It's on the same day as the Del Mar Futurity, which is seven furlongs and not restricted to state-breds. I ran into Art after the Graduation and said, "What do you think you're gonna do?" He said, "I'm leaning toward the Futurity." Obviously Art thought [California Chrome] had a chance to be something special and he wanted to stretch him out a little.

Bob Baffert (California-based Hall of Fame trainer): After the Graduation, I asked a friend of mine to see if [California Chrome's connections] wanted to sell the horse. I liked that race out of him. He looked pretty nice for a Cal-bred. My friend came back and said, "He's not for sale."

The Del Mar Futurity was a disaster. Delgado had to check behind traffic on the backstretch and then Chrome was accidentally struck across the face by jockey Joe Talamo's whip in the stretch run. He finished sixth, but was beaten only two lengths. On the first day of November, Sherman wheeled California Chrome back in the Golden State Juvenile, for 2-year-old Cal-breds, at Santa Anita. Another disaster.

Delgado: In the Del Mar Futurity, I felt like we had the race. I was making my move on the inside and he got hit in the face. So we came back in the Golden State and [he] broke badly. The gate opened and he jumped straight up in the air. To this day, I don't know why he did that. He always looks around a little in the gate. So we're in last, and we're stuck on the inside and he's getting rank. He wasn't comfortable down there. We finished sixth, beat three lengths.

Two days later, Art Sherman calls me and says, We're going to make a change. I was devastated. That race cost me the mount. It cost me the Derby. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have made a change down the road, anyway.

Sherman: Albert Delgado is a nice guy. It's tough. I was a jockey for a long time. Looking back, California Chrome probably should have won a few more races.

Martin: Before we ran a single race, I asked Art to look into getting Mike Smith. Art said, "I can do that, but those top jockeys you never know. You might get Mike Smith once or twice, but you might not have him available to you in the future."

Victor Espinoza (California Chrome's current jockey): I was watching this Art Sherman horse train at Del Mar. I told my agent [Brian Beach], "There's something about that horse. This is a cool horse." I'm not even sure what it was. I just thought I would fit him.

Brian Beach (Espinoza's agent): Certain riders just go together with certain horses. Their styles or just physically, the way the rider sits on the horse. Victor thought he was a good match with this horse.

John Shirreffs (California-based trainer of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta): Victor Espinoza is the right size for this horse. He's not too big. He has good leverage. When he holds the horse, his shoulders are right behind the horse's withers. He can take one hold and just hold him the whole way around. He doesn't have to change his body or move around. He just sits quietly.

LAYDEN: Victor and Jose Espinoza share a career but lead two different lives

Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Derby and Preakness on War Emblem, liked California Chrome.
Bill Frakes/SI

On Dec. 22, 2013, in his last start as a two-year-old -- and his first under Espinoza -- California Chrome won the King Glorious Stakes, for Cal-breds. The King Glorious was run on the last day of racing in the history of storied Hollywood Park.

Baffert: In that race, [California Chrome] just made a huge jump in the Ragozin [Handicapping] Sheets. That's when everybody noticed. He was probably always good, but he just had to mature a little bit. That race, with Victor on him, he just made this huge leap.

Sherman: The King Glorious was a breakout race.

A month later, California Chrome romped again, to a 5 ½-length victory in the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita. On March 8, Sherman threw him into deeper water, in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. California Chrome went to the front and won by 7¼ lengths, officially putting him on the Derby trail foreseen a year earlier by Martin.

Sherman: We had to take advantage of the Cal-bred races. There was a lot of money involved. But the San Felipe was really a turning point. We had to see if he was good enough. He got a flying start out of the gate, opened up two [lengths] right away and I said, "Wow, look at that." He goes 1:09 and change [for six furlongs] and 1:33 and change [for a mile], which I thought was a little too fast. Then this horse named Midnight Hawk moves up on him and I think, Well, this is it, we're in a tough spot now. Then Victor lets him out a notch and he opens up five lengths. What is this? This is another dimension altogether. This horse is just galloping.

Espinoza: The San Felipe, I decided to send him to the lead. I thought he was a little bit tired, but I wanted to try something different with him. I didn't tell Art. I wanted to see if he [could] go wire to wire. If I [had messed it up], people were going to say, This guy is the worst rider in the world. What was he thinking? But that was the day I found out how much he loves to run.

In the weeks between the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, the primary West Coast prep for the Kentucky Derby, Coburn and Martin say they started getting calls from wealthy horsemen interested in buying all or part of California Chrome.

Martin: The same guy called twice in the same afternoon. First he wanted to pay us $6 million for the horse in its entirety. I said no. Two hours later he called back and offered the same $6 million for 51 percent of the horse. He said, "The buyer wants control." I said, "Control of what?" He said, "Control of everything." Then he said specifically we would have to change rider, trainer and silks. We weren't going to do that. I had several calls after that for even higher offers.

Coburn: What kind of a price tag can you put on a dream?

Martin: I think people [were] low-balling us just to do a deal with two guys who supposedly don't have any money. At least I keep hearing that's what we are.

On April 5, California Chrome established himself as the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby with an easy 5¼-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

Sherman: Then I really knew what we had. Those other horses banged on him a little bit. When he made his move, Victor had the reins double-knotted. [Jockey] Gary Stevens came up to me after the race and said, "I tried your horse today. He's the real McCoy."

Gary Stevens: Victor can do anything he wants with that horse.

Delgado: I'm not taking anything away from Victor Espinoza, but anyone can ride that horse. You just basically just keep him out of trouble. He wants to be out in the clear.

On the first Saturday in May, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby by 1¾ lengths. Key to the victory was a clean break from the No. 5 post position. Delgado was right about Chrome enjoying a clear path.

Espinoza: I made sure he got a good break. I wanted to get him out in the open. He likes to look around in the starting gate.

LAYDEN: The victory of California Chrome and the magic of the Derby

Two weeks later California Chrome won the Preakness. Espinoza again skillfully kept him in the clear early, and then responded to a premature challenge from Social Inclusion with a half mile to run.

Jerry Bailey (Hall of Fame jockey, NBC analyst): There were a lot of moving parts in that race, and things happened so quickly. A series of adjustments. Who can adjust best? Victor did a great job.

Baffert: You look at his winning streak, Victor has made sure he gets a really good run. He get outs there and he's just a serious horse when he's out in the open. Victor has done a great job with him.

Shirreffs: He seems to have a real long stride, but it looks effortless. Like he could go on and on and on. This horse looks like he's gotten better with each race.

Becky (Bowman) Davis: When I realized who this horse is, I thought, Wow, somebody won the genetic lottery. He looked so laid back out there. That's something his dam and his granddam didn't have. They were internal worriers. They didn't get that laid-back gene. He got it from somewhere else.

Shug McGaughey: I know people have been making a big deal of how those guys bought the dam for only $8,000. There's a lot of good horses in his bloodlines.

Dr. Thomas Bowman: I won't get caught up in what I call retrospective genius. It's very easy to look, after the fact, at a horse's pedigree and say "This is what made the difference." With this horse, we're cognizant that Numbered Account was a terrific broodmare; that Sir Ivor could run long and was very sound; those are some of the attributes that we recognized. But it's not as if we put all that together, like Legos. And those are just on the dam's side. The father would have contributed 50 percent, as well. But so many other things factor into this. What if those two guys didn't buy her? What if they didn't send her to Art Sherman? What if they didn't change jockeys? So many things.

For me, I look at it like this: History walked by me and I brushed up against it.

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