The Martins remember the first time they saw the colt.
He was chestnut and shiny, like a copper penny. His face bore a wide, white stripe, and his feet looked like he’d stepped in a bucket of white paint. With long, strong legs, the newborn was so tall, he could barely fit under his mother to nurse. He weighed 137 pounds, about 30 more than an average thoroughbred foal.
Co-owners Denise and Perry Martin of Yuba City nicknamed him Junior that day in February 2011. And even in those first months, it was clear the foal was unusually attuned to people. With tons of personality, he loved to play with visitors, tugging at clothes and pushing with his nose. But he was no pet pony. With the lean, muscular look of a long-distance runner, he was born to be a world-class athlete.
“I knew it when I first saw him the day he was born,” Perry said.
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“We did think he was special,” said Denise, “and had a shot at being something (great).”
Three years later, the Martins now anxiously await the first Saturday in May and the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. Junior has blossomed into the racehorse the Martins were sure he could be, and is now known to the world as California Chrome. After a string of runaway victories and undefeated in 2014, he prances into the Derby as the horse to beat. Just like the Martins expected.
“Before every race, he calls out to the other horses,” Perry said. “He lets out a whinny to show he’s feeling good. He’s the alpha horse and he’s going to prove it.”
It’s hard to overstate how many odds they’ve already beaten to reach this point. The Martins, both in their 50s, are first-time horse breeders who were part of a group that purchased California Chrome’s mother for just $8,000. Art Sherman, the colt’s 77-year-old trainer, has never had a Derby starter. He stables at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, a world away from Churchill Downs.
Most Derby horses are born to wealth in lush Kentucky bluegrass, not California’s Central Valley. Only three California-bred colts have won the Kentucky Derby, and the last was 52 years ago.
More than lucky, these owners are everyday working folks, beating the wise guys and deep-pocketed millionaires in the Sport of Kings. As California Chrome keeps racking up victories, his story has taken on all the trappings of a feel-good fable. From Coalinga to Louisville, this is a Derby trail like no other.
“Fans are coming out of nowhere,” said Perry, a longtime engineer at the former McClellan Air Force Base.
So are would-be buyers. “I’m getting so many calls, I turned off my cellphone,” he said. “I don’t need that distraction.”
Added Denise: “Fans hold up signs (at the racetrack) with his name. There’s a lady who dresses all chrome (in silver foil); I did not expect that. He’s not just our horse anymore; he’s his own horse, the people’s horse.”
‘The Dumb Ass Partners’
The Martins bred their superstar colt with Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., who remain co-owners. Like the Martins, they’re “just normal people” who shared the same dizzy Derby dream.
“We couldn’t be more different,” said Carolyn. “We met at the racetrack because of a horse. That’s what’s so great about this game. It brings people together.”
Their remarkable story makes believers of even the most grizzled racetrack veterans. It represents a triumph for the little guys, the $2 players who created a regal superstar on a ham sandwich budget. Even their stable name is a wink at tradition: Dumb Ass Partners. Their jockey silks in green and purple (the wives’ favorite colors) feature a bright green jackass.
How unknown were this colt’s connections? The Jockey Club, the national body that oversees thoroughbred record keeping, listed his co-breeder as “Martin Perry” instead of Perry Martin and refused to change it without a $75 fee. When California Chrome won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park in March, national TV and media were still repeating that mistake.
The Martins work together daily at their business, Martin Testing Laboratories at McClellan. After the base was shuttered in 2001, they bought the testing facility and turned it into their family enterprise. They test metals, polymers, composites and finished products for strength, safety and durability.
“If somebody dies if it doesn’t work, that’s (the kind of products) we test,” Perry explained. “Medical devices, airbags, safety equipment, all sorts of products.”
The Coburns live in a manufactured home on 11/8 acres in Carson Valley. Steve works as a press operator at a small factory that makes magnetic strips for credit cards. Carolyn recently retired from her job in payroll at a medical center.
“I was commuting 100 miles a day, round trip,” she said. “I was spending $400 a month on gas.”
On a recent Sunday morning at Los Alamitos, the Coburns stood at California Chrome’s stall, feeding him his favorite oat cookies. Looking every inch a Nevada cowboy with his lucky Stetson hat, Steve guaranteed his horse would win the Derby. “I’m not being cocky, just positive,” he said.
And this Derby, he noted, falls on his 61st birthday. “That’s a sign.”
So far, California Chrome has won six races from 10 starts and more than $1.13 million. He won his last four races, all important stakes, by a combined margin of almost 25 lengths.
“He does everything so easily,” said jockey Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby aboard War Emblem. “He’s a very impressive horse. Right now, he is on his game.”
In March, the couples turned down $6 million for a 51 percent interest. After California Chrome won the prestigious Santa Anita Derby on April 5, they rejected a much higher offer. Their answer to all offers right now: “Thanks, but hell no.”
Horse rich, cash poor
While feeling the pressure of owning a Derby favorite, the Dumb Ass Partners keep their sense of humor intact. Their jackass moniker followed a comment from a groom when they bought their only mare, California Chrome’s mother. Love The Chase, originally purchased for $30,000, won one race at Golden Gate Fields in her undistinguished career. Her lone victory came in an $8,000 maiden claiming race, the bottom rung of racing’s ladder.
Through a syndicate that shares horse ownership, the Martins and Coburns already owned 5 percent apiece of Love The Chase. The other members of the syndicate wanted to dissolve the partnership in 2009. The couples agreed to buy the mare for $8,000 and retire her for breeding.
As they looked at the mare one more time before the purchase, the groom joked, “Whoever buys this mare sure is a dumb ass,” Steve recalled. “Well, we’re the Dumb Ass Partners who bought her.”
Love The Chase had quality that didn’t show on the track. She had an excuse: an entrapped epiglottis, a condition that cut off her air supply while running. She also was terrified of other horses.
“She’d get so panicked in the paddock, she lost her race before she ever got to the starting gate,” Perry said.
But her bloodlines feature some of the sports’ all-time greatest sires. Mr. Prospector was her grandfather. That intrigued Perry, who became a serious student of pedigree.
“If you go back far enough, they all have great breeding,” Sherman, the trainer, noted of thoroughbreds. “But you can’t measure heart.”
It took two seasons to get Love The Chase into foal. She eventually was bred to Lucky Pulpit, a young stallion at Harris Farms in Coalinga. The horse farm is part of Harris Ranch, best known for its mammoth cattle operation on Interstate 5. Lucky Pulpit’s stud fee was $2,500. By comparison, Kentucky stallions command $15,000 to $150,000 per mating.
Since California Chrome’s recent success, Lucky Pulpit’s stud fee went up to $10,000.
By Kentucky standards, California Chrome may seem an amazing bargain, but raising a racehorse isn’t cheap. To keep a horse in training averages $3,000 a month. Care for a mare with foal can run $1,000 a month or more. Plus all the veterinary bills add up. From the day the mare is bred to her baby’s first race can take three years or more.
Just starting in the Kentucky Derby is expensive. Entry fees cost more than $50,000.
“It’s a significant amount of money, at least for us,” Perry said. “Right now, we’re horse rich, but cash poor.”
Still, the payoff can be substantial: The Derby purse is $2 million, with $1.2 million guaranteed for the winner. And a Derby winner can be worth many millions.
‘A different kind of horse’
As the world’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate accomplishment for any horseman, but chances are precious few. A former jockey, trainer Sherman has been to only one Derby. That was 1955. Sherman was the exercise rider for Swaps, who won. On that trip, Sherman slept in Swaps’ stall.
Sherman said California Chrome reminds him of Swaps. The two horses look alike. Both were born in California. They boast that big heart and will to win.
“He’s my Swaps,” Sherman said. “He’s kind of freaky, and I’m enjoying it. I can’t believe the races I’ve been seeing.”
California Chrome got his name because of his markings: Four white feet and that wide blaze down his face. In horse talk, all that flashy white is called “chrome.” Thoroughbreds with such markings often become show horses, not racehorses.
“It’s an old-time thing against four white feet,” Sherman noted. “People think they’re trouble, that (the horse) will have a lot of foot problems and their hooves are a lot harder to heal. Some trainers won’t touch a horse with four white feet.
“Pretty doesn’t mean they can run,” he added. “But this horse is a different kind of horse.”
Sherman trains 15 horses at Los Alamitos Race Course, best known as a quarter-horse track. He relocated his barn to Los Alamitos after the December closure of Hollywood Park in Los Angeles County for redevelopment. Before California Chrome, a Kentucky Derby favorite had never set foot on Los Alamitos’ backstretch. Now, the colt is a local hero, carrying his home state’s pride.
At Los Alamitos’ backstretch cafe, quarter-horse regulars congratulate Sherman and wish him luck. “If he can go a mile and a half, you’ve got another Secretariat,” said Charley Smith, a retired Hall of Fame jockey and Los Alamitos legend, referring to the 1973 Triple Crown winner. “He’s awesome.”
First, California Chrome has to go farther than he’s ever run before. He won the 11/8-mile Santa Anita Derby by more than 5 lengths in near record time. The Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the Triple Crown, is 11/4 miles. That’s followed by the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore at 13/16 miles on May 17. Then, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont on June 7 completes the Triple Crown. The last horse to sweep was Affirmed in 1978.
“This horse was bred to run all day,” said Steve Coburn. “He’s proven the longer the race, the better he gets.”
In the days before the Derby, waiting is the hardest part. Instead of arriving early, California Chrome will fly April 28 to Louisville, Ky., just six days before the Derby. Sherman wants to keep his horse happy at home as long as possible before facing hordes of media on the Churchill Downs backstretch and Kentucky’s uncertain weather.
As for the owners, it’s difficult to stay focused.
“It’s hard to get your work done,” Denise Martin said. “People we haven’t heard from in 20 years are calling to wish us luck.”
This will be the Coburns’ first trip to Kentucky. Among these partners, Perry is the expert; he’s been to one Derby – as a college student in the 1970s.
“A bunch of my buddies were going; we drove 10 hours and sat in the infield,” he said. “We saw three seconds of the race. I can’t remember who won; I didn’t see the finish. I didn’t have enough money to bet. They wanted $10 for a beer; that was a week’s worth of beer for us back then.”
This trip will be different. They’ll be in the owners’ boxes in Section 300 with a clear view of the finish line. Among the other owners for this Derby are Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, and billionaire B. Wayne Hughes. But the couples are still on a tight budget.
“We’re staying in Frankfort (55 miles away) and driving,” Denise said. “Louisville is too expensive.”
“I don’t know what I’ll wear, but I’ve got my Derby hat,” Carolyn said. “It’s got loads of purple flowers and a big green jackass out front. When they see me coming, I want people to know who we are.”