I’ve been on a racehorse only once. I was 19, in probably the best physical shape of my life, and a jockey friend arranged for me to get on a nice, tame filly early one morning at Arlington Park racetrack outside Chicago.
I was working there that summer in the licensing office and in love with the racehorses. They seemed wild, unpredictable and fast. I wanted to know what it would be like to ride one.
I also loved the sport itself: how the need for luck unites the lowliest backstretch worker and the wealthiest horse owner at post time. Anyone can win. That’s why California Chrome caught my eye a few weeks ago. He’s a cheaply bred California horse with no business being in the Kentucky Derby. But he’s won his last four races by more than 25 lengths and is now poised to knock off some of the heaviest hitters in the racing game.
Junior, as his owners call him, is pretty but not exceptional-looking: a medium-size chestnut with a big white blaze down his face and four white feet. To me, he looks joyous when he runs past the finish line, bounding along, ears pricked forward.
I read his back story: How one guy from Yuba City and another from a town in Nevada are first-time horse owners. How he was born at Harris Farms, several miles north of the stinky cattle operation off Interstate 5 in the Central Valley. How he came from cheap horses and his trainer is 77 years old and has never had a Derby starter. How his owners decided to call themselves Dumb Ass Partners. In a world of million-dollar racehorses and big-name trainers who routinely bring in five horses trying to win the Derby each year, California Chrome is representing the 99 percenters.
Seven Reasons Why He’s an Underdog, Even Though He’s the Favorite
- Only three California-bred horses have ever won the Kentucky Derby. The last was Decidedly in 1962. (The others are Morvich in 1922 and Swaps in 1955.)
- He’s training at a track for quarter horses south of L.A. That’s like running Formula One cars with NASCAR cars.
- His dam (mom) cost $8,000. The top broodmare in the country cost $4.2 million when she last sold in 2002.
- Perry Martin and Steve Coburn paid a $2,500 stud fee for Lucky Pulpit at Harris Farms in Coalinga. The top stud in Kentucky (Tapit) costs $150,000.
- Chrome’s trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, has never entered a horse in the Derby. The top trainer in the country, Todd Pletcher, has run 36. Currently, he’s bringing four.
- California Chrome has four white feet, long considered bad luck.
- Dumb Ass Partners is a name that probably shouldn’t be in the history books.
I went to the former McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento to meet co-owner Martin, of Yuba City. Turns out he’s also from Chicago and got hooked on racehorses at Arlington Park when he was 16.
“I loved the track,” Martin said. “I wasn’t supposed to bet. You’re supposed to be 18 but I was big enough and had a mustache, so they let me bet. I never won a lot but it was a blast. When I got a license I drove myself out there.”
Martin’s first date with his wife was taking her to a racetrack.
A couple years ago he decided to take his savings and get into the racehorse business.
“Now I don’t bet on other horses anymore,” he said. “It’s not as fun as owning your own horse, your own sports franchise.”
Martin met Steve Coburn, and they agreed to buy Love the Chase for $8,000. She gave birth to California Chrome, and both families fell in love with him. “After we got the call he was born, we drove for two hours and he was already up and running around his mom when we got there. He was handled by people right from the start. He’s a people horse.”
They named him by having a waitress draw from a bunch of names they put in a hat. (Perry had submitted “Seabizquick.”)
They were so nuts about him that last spring when the Las Vegas winter book opened up, allowing gamblers to wager early on the May 3 Kentucky Derby, Martin sent his 24-year-old daughter on a mission to Vegas with $500 to bet on their horse.
“She has this cute baby face, and all these guys were saying, ‘You don’t want to bet on this Cal-bred.’ And she said, ‘He’s my horse!’ She got odds of 275-1,” Martin said.
Martin is a big man, deliberate and thoughtful. He fully believed when he bred Love the Chase to Lucky Pulpit that he was picking winning bloodlines. As he heads to Kentucky with his family and friends, he believes his horse will prove he’s the best.
“The battle here is putting together the right team. We have the right team now. We have an old-school trainer, we went on old-school breeding. We have a good jockey, who’s not just in the moment but also thinking 50 jumps ahead,” Martin said.
Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, is the only one of Chrome’s team who has Derby experience. In 2002 he was selected at the last minute to ride a horse named War Emblem. That year Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman reportedly spent a million to buy War Emblem ahead of the Derby. He was quoted as wanting to win the race that badly. They did win. (A ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, bought a Derby horse this year named Cairo Prince. He got injured and is out of the race.)
Espinoza said riding California Chrome this year is very different: “More pressure. I know the horse and the people.”
When I went to the stable at Los Alamitos (Orange County) one morning to talk to the team and see California Chrome, a TV crew mounted a small camera on the chest of Willie Delgado, who exercises Chrome in the mornings. Another crew had put one on his helmet the morning before. They are all trying to capture what it looks like, what it feels like, to be on a horse running that fast. I’ve always wished I could have ridden a horse in a race.
That’s why I got on that filly at Arlington Park back in the day. I made it once around the track that morning. My arms were too weak to even pull her up. A pony rider had to catch us and bring her to a stop. That was embarrassing enough. But when I dismounted at the barn, my legs were so weak that my knees buckled and I fell on my butt in front of the stable folks. Everyone got a big chuckle out of that. My jockey friend was kind.
“That’s what happens to everyone the first time,” he said, grinning.