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"Immortality has been realized once the roar of the crowd has been united."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Perfectly Polished

California Chrome Poised For Kentucky Derby Run

In a time when the collective cheers of a nation are typically reserved for Super Bowl MVPs and World Series champions, horse racing is about to unleash its own version of unbridled pandemonium. The field for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby has now been set. This year’s bunch is perhaps the most meaningful to load into the gates at Churchill Downs in recent memory. Racing has endured its fair share of black eyes in 2014, and the sport presently sits at a crossroads that can only be traversed on the back of a newfound hero.

In 2012, J. Paul Reddam’s colt I’ll Have Another was blazing a triumphant path towards the ever-elusive Triple Crown. This achievement would never be realized, however, as injury forced him into retirement just one day prior to the Belmont Stakes. Not since the likes of the great Zenyatta has an equine athlete captivated audiences outside of racing’s inner circle. The sport has been waiting for its next guiding light, that transcendent figure capable of pumping excitement back through the veins of mainstream America. This wait may soon be coming to an end as a California-bred three-year-old is about to take center stage on racing’s most coveted day.

Perry and Denise Martin, Carolyn and Steve Coburn (Photo Courtesy of Benoit Photo)
The stories behind California Chrome and his connections have been well-chronicled. The horse nicknamed “Junior” is the first foal out of a little known mare named Love The Chase.  The mare was purchased by first-time owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn for a meager $8,000. Love The Chase earned only one victory during her brief time on the track, yet that did not deter Martin and Coburn from their lifelong dream. A groom standing nearby as they made the purchase remarked that someone would have to be a “dumb ass” to buy the old girl. 

Naturally, the new owners next did what seemed most fitting as they aptly named their operation DAP Racing, short for Dumb Ass Partners. They chose green and purple for their racing silks in honor of their wives’ favorite colors. A bright green jackass was also emblazoned on the silks as their way of poking fun at the high society and riches so often associated with the sport. Yes, it’s safe to say that Martin and Coburn are as blue-collared and well-liked as they come in a world that centers squarely on the almighty dollar.

Love The Chase was bred in California to a sire named Lucky Pulpit. When the time came to name their new foal, Martin and Coburn remained unconventional, asking a waitress at a restaurant to pull a name out from a hat during dinner. The name that waitress pulled was none other than California Chrome.

Art Sherman (Photo Courtesy of Benoit Photo)
Trainer Art Sherman’s career in racing dates back to an era when female carhops were still delivering food on roller skates. As an eighteen-year-old in 1955, Sherman found his way to the Kentucky Derby as an exercise rider and traveling companion for the legendary Swaps. The trip out to Louisville took the pair four days in a dusty rail car. Swaps, also known as the California Comet, went on to win the Derby that year and would eventually go down as one of only three California-bred horses in history to pull off the herculean feat.

Sherman’s first professional mount as a jockey came in 1957 at Hollywood Park, and over the next twenty-one years, he enjoyed moderate acclaim at race tracks all across the land.  For many athletes, life after their career can be deflating, but Art Sherman was determined to make a name for himself as a trainer long after his days in the saddle had come to an end.

Back in March of 2013, Art Sherman received an email from Perry Martin that included a very specific outline for the two-year-old colt heading to his barn. The email was entitled “The Road to the Kentucky Derby.” Martin listed the races that California Chrome would need to successfully compete in so that his spot in the 2014 Kentucky Derby was secured.  Rather than dismiss the outlandish blueprint from this first-time owner, Sherman read it through with great sincerity, and opted instead to set Martin’s detailed plan into motion.

California Chrome (Photo Courtesy of Eric Dives)
California Chrome’s first race came in April of 2013. He was entered in a four and one half furlong maiden special weight affair held at Betfair Hollywood Park. Chrome did not win. He would run a solid second that day, but was entered back just three weeks later at the same level to record his first victory.  The next four races included a fifth in the Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes, a first in the Graduation Stakes at Del Mar, and consecutive sixth place finishes in the Del Mar Futurity and the Golden State Juvenile Stakes.

It was then that Art Sherman used his thirty-five years of training experience to make a difficult decision. Alberto Delgado had ridden California Chrome in all but one of his career starts. Delgado had done an admirable job, but Sherman also knew that racing at the elite level would require a more seasoned and savvy rider. Enter Victor Espinoza.

The majestic chestnut and his new jockey were about to reel off the most divine string of victories that California horse racing had seen in quite some time. The final stakes race run on the hallowed ground at Hollywood Park was the King Glorious on December 22, 2013. California Chrome was dominant, pulling away late from his in-state rivals under a hand ride by Espinoza. He would do the same in the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita one month later. These victories were important, but the team knew that their horse would only be taken seriously if he were to face off and win versus non-state-bred competition.

California Chrome delivered again. He obliterated a talented field in the San Felipe Stakes, and it was around this time that stories behind the horse and his connections truly began to surface. Much to the surprise of many, California Chrome was training at Los Alamitos, a venue best known for its weekend quarter horse racing. His presence there brought great credibility to the track destined to fill the void left by Hollywood Park’s closing.

The racing community learned of Junior’s affinity for Mrs. Pasture’s Horse Cookies, and fans were subsequently shocked as they uncovered the lineage behind the sport’s newest icon. Reporters were lining up for interviews with Martin and Coburn, hoping to unearth as much information as they could about the enigmatic pair. Art Sherman referenced the mighty colt as his “Swaps” and stated repeatedly that Chrome was nothing short of a rock star. All that remained in the Golden State was to go out and win the Santa Anita Derby.     

California Chrome Romps in the Santa Anita Derby (Photo Courtesy of Eric Dives)
Bob Baffert, John Sadler, and a host of other trainers saddled their very best in hopes of ending the California-bred Prince’s streak at three. Fortunately for Art Sherman and his team, hope and reality can rarely stand together in the winner’s circle. California Chrome did not break smoothly, yet once Victor Espinoza helped him regain his composure down the backstretch, the outcome was all but sealed. Hoppertunity and Candy Boy turned in commendable performances, but the day would unequivocally belong to the horse from the humble beginnings. California Chrome was victorious, this time by more than five lengths.

Perhaps Denise Martin (Perry’s wife) said it best as she described California Chrome’s meteoric rise to a Sacramento based reporter. “He’s not just our horse anymore; he’s his own horse, the people’s horse.” Martin explained.

As the gates break open for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, there will be factors and uncertainties that simply cannot be accounted for. The horse racing world will still be lying in wait for its next guiding light. Some people will scream for a longshot, while others will root on a jockey, but their voices will quickly be silenced as the cheers rain down for the horse that is perfectly polished. 

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