THE STORY GOES like this: There were these two guys, thrown together in 2008 by their very modest investments in a racehorse. They had put their money into a syndicate, which means that they shared ownership with more than a dozen others in a thoroughbred partnership of the type that has become an affordable means of entry into a costly hobby. The horse, a 2-year-old filly named Love the Chase, was both small and slow (though apparently quite sweet) and hence the full syndicate eventually decided to divest itself of ownership. But the two guys both liked her. They insist—in that dreamy manner that exists only at the racetrack and other places where common sense is secondary to dreams—that they saw something. They bought Love the Chase for $8,000. A groom at the filly's barn had said that anybody who would actually pay money for the horse was a dumb-ass, so Steve Coburn and Perry Martin shook hands and agreed on the spot to name their nascent operation Dumb-Ass Partners.
A little while later they bred the filly to a 10-year-old stallion named Lucky Pulpit, whose breeding rights were selling for about $2,000. They saw something in him too. From this coupling came a colt with four white feet and a giant white blaze on his chestnut face, born on a rare rainy afternoon in California's drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley, a place better known for growing almonds and olives than champion thoroughbreds. The colt seriously injured his mother while leaving the womb by dragging his crooked right forefoot across the wall of her uterus and spilling her blood on the floor of the foaling barn. Once he was taught to run and given the name California Chrome, Coburn and Martin sent him to a septuagenarian trainer who had once slept on hay bails in a railway car next to Swaps when the colt made the trip from Los Angeles to Louisville before his victory in the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Now, for the first time in nearly 60 years, Art Sherman, 77, is going back to the Derby. And he's going with the likely favorite.
Recent history has shown that there are multiple paths to winning the Kentucky Derby. A year ago Orb carried a century's worth of equine blue blood into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs for the Phipps family, who have been a cornerstone of the sport for more than 80 years. In 2012 the Derby was won by I'll Have Another, who had been purchased as a yearling by a farm worker for $11,000 and taught to run while living in a plywood stall on a hardscrabble track in central Florida. In '09, Mine That Bird, who had once been bought for $9,500, came in on a trailer from New Mexico and won the Derby at odds of 50--1. And six years earlier, six high school buddies from a small town in upstate New York were part of a syndicate that paid $75,000 for a New York--bred gelding named Funny Cide, who won the Derby over favorite Empire Maker, bred and owned by a member of the royal family of Saudi Arabia. The formula for winning the Derby is this: There is no formula.
Even measured against the recent past, California Chrome takes the imagination into a distant place in which reason yields altogether. It's one thing to buy a Derby favorite. It's quite another to breed one, through the wildly inexact, needle-in-a-haystack science of equine bloodstock; many babies never even make it to the track. Think of it as building an NFL franchise entirely from the draft, with no veterans, and making the playoffs. Coburn and Martin, Dumb-Ass Partners, have done this. And they have done it on their very first attempt at breeding a horse.
LAST FRIDAY, with his wife, Carolyn, riding shotgun, Coburn piloted his 2013 Nissan Rogue over central California's rolling brown hills to Harris Ranch Horse Division to visit California Chrome's parents. "Going to the Derby has always been on our bucket list," said Steve. "But to be going with a horse that's running in the race and ranked No. 1? From our first breeding? We got it right the first time. Did we just get lucky? What are those odds? It's just a fairy tale come true."
In a year in which many Derby contenders have been sidelined by injuries or illnesses (and a year in which, frankly, horse racing could use a little warm and fuzzy news after a discomforting PETA investigation, published by The New York Times in March, that depicted what appeared to be cruel treatment of horses by employees of prominent trainer Steve Asmussen), California Chrome has been uncommonly ascendant. After winning only two of his first six races, he has won four straight since December by a total of 24¼ lengths, including a dominating 5-length victory under jockey Victor Espinoza in the April 5 Santa Anita Derby, the most significant West Coast prep race. "At this point," says trainer Todd Pletcher, who is expected to saddle three of the colt's rivals in Kentucky, "we're all just wondering if California Chrome is as good as he appears to be."
Some people aren't wondering at all about Chrome's authenticity; they are chasing it with their wallets. Before the Santa Anita Derby, Coburn and Martin say that they were offered $6 million for the horse. They refused. Two hours later the same buyer returned offering $6 millon for 51% of California Chrome and full control over all decisions. Again, they refused. Another group wanted a 25% stake in California Chrome for $1.1 million. Somebody else offered $2.1 million for Love the Chase. Coburn and Martin said no to everything. Offers have continued since then, growing in size and providing the two men with multiple chances to lock in millions on a $10,000 investment. They have continued to say no, a massive gamble on a horse who might never be more valuable. Coburn's spin is lyrical: "What kind of price tag can you put on a dream?" he says.
Martin is more pragmatic. "First of all, this means a lot to Art," said Martin. "But I also think people are 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." (Both owners placed Derby future-book bets on California Chrome: Coburn got $1,000 down at 200--1 in January, the same month that Martin's daughter, Kelly, 26, made a trip to Las Vegas with friends and made a total of $500 in bets at odds ranging from 175--1 to 275--1.)
The owners are very different men, partners of convenience with little in common except for their horses. Coburn, who will turn 61 on Derby Day, wears a cowboy hat and battered boots and says things like, "My mom was real mad about the spurs I was wearing when I was born." His first job out of high school was herding cattle on horseback in feed lots outside Bakersfield. Currently the Coburns live about three hours east of Sacramento, in Topaz Lake, Nev., and Coburn works for a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and hotel room keys.
Martin, 58, is a Chicago native who says he has degrees in applied physics and solid state physics, and an M.B.A. After first working as a college instructor, he spent 13 years as a scientist and engineer at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento. He now owns Martin Testing Laboratories, which evaluates products for safety and durability, and operates out of a 17,000-square-foot plant on the grounds of the McClellan base, which closed in 2001.
Coburn began going to the races after meeting Carolyn in the mid-1990s; Martin, who lives in Yuba City, Calif., went to Arlington Park as a teen. Their paths crossed in 2008 when they each purchased 5% of Love the Chase, then an unraced 2-year-old filly, through a partnership called Blinkers On Racing Stable, operated by San Francisco businessman Scott Sherwood. (Martin first joined the partnership in '07; Love the Chase was Coburn's first horse.)
Love the Chase is a chestnut filly bought privately as a yearling by Cary Frommer, a pinhooker (an individual who buys young horses, breaks them and sells them for a profit) from Aiken, S.C. Frommer sold Love the Chase for a modest $30,000 at a sale in May 2008 to Northern California--based trainer Greg Gilchrist, who was representing Blinkers On Racing. She ran three races for Gilchrist and was routed by a total of 22 lengths. "She was small when we bought her," says Gilchrist, "and she never did grow. She [ran] her heart out, but she didn't have much ability." Sherwood and his partners voted to put Love the Chase into $8,000 claiming races, where she could be purchased by anyone willing to pay. Coburn and Martin instead bought her outright and gave her to trainer Monty Meier for two more races; she finished up the track in both.
Martin says that a breathing problem was discovered after Love the Chase's last start. Meier says only, "She was a nervous filly, and she never ran very well for me. She was pretty-looking and fairly well-bred, but I never thought for a minute she would produce a monster like California Chrome."
Lucky Pulpit, Coburn and Martin's choice for Love the Chase's first breeding, is a son of the stallion Pulpit, who has some solid horses in his family tree. But the colt won just three races in 22 starts from 2003 to '06. "Pretty horse, natural speed, but he had a breathing problem and he was ornery," says Cliff Sise, who trained Lucky Pulpit for most of his career. The low stud fee suggested modest expectations for his stallion career.
CALIFORNIA CHROME was foaled at Harris Ranch Horse Division in Coalinga, Calif., on a sprawling farm flush with ash, oak and almond trees. (He is a California-bred; no Cal-bred has won the Derby since Decidedly in 1962.) Because of the internal injuries suffered by Love the Chase in foaling, mother and baby were quarantined for several weeks; California Chrome nursed while Love the Chase was connected to a catheter through which she received antibleeding medication. When he was 18 months old, Chrome began working out under Harris Ranch trainer Per Antonsen and instantly outran his pedigree. "Very precocious," says Antonsen. "Smart horse, nice way of going. I told the owners, 'You're going to have fun with this guy.' "
The owners met for lunch at a restaurant in Galt, Calif., roughly halfway between their homes, to decide on a name for their horse. Coburn and Carolyn, and Martin and his wife, Denise, each wrote a name on a slip of paper and put the paper into Coburn's 10-year-old cowboy hat. Coburn asked a waitress to pick the slips out one at time, first choice to last. Steve Coburn's pick, California Chrome, came out first. (In horse racing, white accents on a horse's coat are called "chrome.") The Jockey Club accepted the name (the other options: Lucky At Love, Big Chapter and Seabisquik, an unfortunate riff on Seabiscuit).
The partners needed a trainer. Five hours south, at Hollywood Park, Art Sherman was in the seventh decade of a remarkable career. Born in Brooklyn in 1937, he moved to Los Angeles with his family in '44; his father owned a barber shop in the Echo Park section of L.A., and Art would hang out at the place on weekends. Customers noticed that Art was small—he stopped growing when he reached 5' 2½"—and suggested he try to become a jockey. By the time he was 16, he was under contract to owner Rex Ellsworth and trainer Mesh Tenney, both iconic figures in Southern California racing. At 18, Sherman was preparing to ride his first race while working the stable with a rake and a pitchfork, and it's in the latter role that he accompanied Swaps to the '55 Derby.
"I was just a stable kid," says Sherman, sitting at a table in the track kitchen at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cerritos, Calif., the former quarter-horse track where California Chrome has been stabled since Hollywood Park closed in December. "I wasn't even in the winner's-circle picture."
A year later Sherman was one of Swaps's exercise riders. At Los Alamitos he pulled out an old photo of himself on the big horse's back, a dark-haired kid in a flannel shirt. In his 20s, Sherman lived in tack rooms from L.A. to Florida to New York to Chicago. He once beat the great Eddie Arcaro to the wire at Gulfstream, and while the two men were walking away from the scales, Arcaro put his arm around Sherman and said, "You rode a good race, kid." ("My god," Sherman says he remembers thinking, "Eddie Arcaro.") Sherman met his wife, the former Glenda Faye Boyd, on a blind date in Chicago, and they've been married 53 years.
Sherman rode 1,600 winners in his career, retired at 40 and began training in Northern California. In 1995 he moved to the more challenging (and lucrative) Southern California circuit, on which he has had success for nearly two decades. But he has never had the big-money clients who bankroll the likes of Pletcher and Bob Baffert, and he has never had a 3-year-old as good as California Chrome. Sherman got the gig because Martin was acquainted with Sherman's son, Steve, who trains at Golden Gate Fields, Art's old stomping ground. Art was visiting Steve last winter when Martin approached him and said, "I'm sending you a Derby horse."
Sherman laughed. These guys are green, he thought. But with every race the Derby dream got closer to becoming reality. Sherman has made one crucial change: He switched jockeys after six races, from Alberto Delgado to Espinoza, who rode 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. California Chrome is 4 for 4 with Espinoza in the irons. They have won from the front and from behind, showing the kind of versatility that is critical in Kentucky. (Espinoza never once used his whip in the Santa Anita Derby romp.)
Sherman stood last week on the asphalt outside his barn as California Chrome was bathed and washed after a gallop. This has all come quickly and unexpectedly to a racetrack lifer, who has seen almost all there is to see but who now finds himself staring down something altogether new. "In our business this just doesn't happen," says Sherman. "The whole story is ridiculous. It doesn't make any sense at all."
Sure it does. It's the Derby.
HORSES FOR THE COURSE
California Chrome is the likely favorite to win the Run for the Roses, but here are five other colts—all of whom, save for one homebred, sold for more than $8,000—who shouldn't be ignored on the first Saturday in May.