LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Steve Coburn proudly calls himself a working man, and he’ll tell you upfront that he was insulted when a rich stable owner offered him millions of dollars for the racehorse who’d eaten cookies from his hand as a gangly 3-month-old.
“Somebody who’s got that much money, just to think they can step in and buy something people have worked so hard to get to?” Coburn said. “To me, that was a slap in the face. The no was easy. Not just ‘no,’ but ‘hell no.’”
It might seem strange, the idea of a populist hero as clear favorite in today’s Kentucky Derby, a race that fires the dreams of multimillionaire horsemen around the world.
But that’s California Chrome.
His owners, Coburn and Perry Martin, are racing novices who spent a grand total of $10,000 to breed their champion. His trainer, Art Sherman, last saw Churchill Downs as an 18-year-old stable hand and never expected to make it back.
They’ve spent a giddy week telling their colt’s story to anyone who asks — how Coburn and Martin met when they bought California Chrome’s mother, an untalented Maryland-bred racer named Love the Chase; how Sherman thought the men were a touch nuts when they told him the young thoroughbred had a brilliant future.
Thousands of long-shot tales bubble up every year, and almost none of them end anywhere near the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby. Yet here they are with the one horse that consistently blew away his competition in the spring prep races.
“It’s become like a fairy tale come true,” said Coburn, who turns 61 today. “It really, really has. It’s quite an amazing deal.”
Some top trainers will admit they’d never feel complete without a Derby win. But Sherman, 77, isn’t among them. All week, he’s laughed with well-wishers, telling them how fortunate he feels for this late-career gift. Given his short, sturdy build, it’s not hard to picture Sherman as the jockey he was for 23 years.
“I’m very satisfied with my career,” he said. “I never made it to what you’d say are the big, big horses, but I won a lot of graded stakes, always won my share and had a lot of fun.”
Sherman last came to Kentucky in 1955 as an 18-year-old working the barn for the great California horse Swaps. He had caught the racing bug a few years earlier, listening to the men call in bets from his father’s barber shop.
“Everything was overwhelming to me,” he recalled. “I’d never been out of California. We took the horse off the van into the barn area and I’m seeing all the people around. … It was an awesome experience.”
He watched Swaps charge to victory from a perch on the backside, never making it to the winner’s circle.
Sherman became a jockey, always successful but a bit under the national radar. He repeated the pattern as a trainer, accumulating more than 2,000 wins from his California stable but never producing a Triple Crown star.
He won’t lie to you and say he knew California Chrome was the one. But he liked the chestnut colt from early on, finding him both amiable and quick to learn.
“He was just a baby, and yet he was more focused than a lot of the 2-year-olds,” Sherman said.
Coburn had seen the same qualities from the time Love the Chase gave birth. He and Martin had paid a $2,000 stud fee to pair her with a stallion named Lucky Pulpit. It seemed a humble blend on the surface, but the men based their hopes on the great horses — Swaps, Seattle Slew, Secretariat — in California Chrome’s more distant ancestry.
Coburn, who makes his living manufacturing the magnetic strips on credit cards, calls the Derby favorite “Junior.”
“He was just very curious,” Coburn recalled. “I’d walk up and I’d pet him. I’ve been feeding him the Mrs. Pastures horse cookies since he was 3-months old. So we’ve been interacting since he was a baby.”
He and Martin gave the horse to Sherman because they wanted an old-school trainer who would give California Chrome plenty of individual attention.
California Chrome’s poise has been on display all week at Churchill Downs. He likes to stop for a moment and take in the scene, apparently unperturbed by the photographers and patrons clicking cameras all around him.
“It’s like I’ve been saying, he’s almost half-human,” said his exercise rider, Willy Delgado. “He just likes to take it all in.”
Though California Chrome had his ups and downs as a 2-year-old, he has passed every test this year. Facing a stacked field at the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, he exploded to a 5-length victory that stamped him as the horse to beat in Kentucky. Sherman said jockey Victor Espinoza even eased up on the horse late in the race.
The trainer had never seen one of his horses deliver quite like that.
“Every time I watch him run, especially that last time, I say wow,” he said.
“He deserves to be the favorite,” said Kentucky trainer Mike Maker, who will saddle three horses in the Derby. “What does he do so well? He likes to win.”
With California Chrome’s success came those big purchase offers, one as high as $6 million, according to Coburn, who added that someone even offered
$2 million for Love the Chase.
But Coburn and Martin weren’t about to bow out before the Triple Crown. They wanted to live the dream and give Sherman a chance to complete his 59-year Kentucky circle.
After a week at the center of the racing world’s attention, the trainer said he was still having fun Friday morning. It was 8 a.m. outside Barn 20, and California Chrome had jogged early, keeping to his routine.
Sherman had been up since 2 a.m., perhaps because of all the chocolate ice cream he’d eaten the night before. He had also visited Swaps’ grave behind the Kentucky Derby Museum.
“That was touching for me,” he said.
Nearby, Coburn held court in his worn boots and weather-beaten cowboy hat. He said he had a $300 Stetson in a box at home that Sherman wouldn’t let him wear for reasons of superstition.
More than 60 years around the business have taught Sherman the enormous role luck plays for any horse, much less a Kentucky Derby champion. Just 24 hours earlier, Hoppertunity, the second choice on the morning line, had scratched because of a foot bruise. Sherman shook his head sadly at the thought.
He could see California Chrome’s perfect trip in his mind’s eye — no trouble around the first turn, hang a few horses back from the lead, outlast the early speed and stay ahead of the late chargers.
But who knew if reality would be so kind?
“Life plays a funny part in a lot of things,” Sherman said. “Maybe it’s my turn.”