California Chrome Ready to Crunch KY Derby

“He ate a whole bag,” said co-owner Carolyn Coburn as her colt motioned for more oat treats.

California Chrome playfully nipped Steve Coburn, Carolyn’s husband. “I’m taking an extra day off,” said Coburn, who works as a press operator in a small Northern Nevada factory. “I called my boss. He said everybody from the shop watched the race and they’d been celebrating, too.”

California Chrome is taking his neophyte owners/breeders on an adventure of a lifetime. He’s the first horse bred by co-owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, NV., and Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, CA. The couples met through shared ownership in Love The Chase; they each owned 5% as part of a Blinkers On syndicate. Together, they bought the mare outright for $8,000 as a broodmare prospect; California Chrome is her first foal.

California Chrome, winner of the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 5, will be the first horse to prepare for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) in Orange County, Calif. Trainer Art Sherman is taking the Los Alamitos to Louisville route.

“He’s happy here,” said Sherman, among the Thoroughbred trainers who moved their stables from now-shuttered Hollywood Park to Los Alamitos, the Quarter Horse track. “We’ll ship the week of the Derby.”

Sherman juggled several TV and radio interviews with well-wishers who just wanted to see the horse. He plans to keep doing what works with his millionaire colt.

“I’m not going to let anybody influence me, tell me what I should do,” said Sherman, who was 1955 Derby winner Swaps’ exercise rider.

Sherman, 77, could barely sleep the night after winning this Santa Anita Derby. “I woke up with a jolt at 2 a.m.  I couldn’t back to sleep, so I thought I might as well go to the barn.”

Sherman got to the backstretch at 2:30 a.m. to find California Chrome content in his stall.

“Gosh, darn, he was perfect,” Sherman said.

The chestnut colt had been back in his barn at 7:30 Saturday night, about four hours after posing in the winner’s circle with more than 100 fans and friends of his owners. The California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit   now has six wins from 10 starts and four consecutive stakes victories. His winning margins for those four stakes add up to nearly 25 lengths.

He won the Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/4 and his time for the 1 1/8-mile distance, 1:47.52, was the fourth fastest clocking in 77 renewals of the prestigious event. Only Lucky Debonair (1965), Sham (1973), and Indian Charlie (1998), all timed in 1:47 flat, were quicker. Lucky Debonair, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

Saturday night, longtime California horseman John Harris sent a dozen roses each to Denise Martin and Carolyn Coburn. Harris owns Harris Farms, where California Chrome was born and sire Lucky Pulpit stands.

“It was astounding,” Harris said of California Chrome’s Santa Anita Derby win. “It was predictable in a way—he was a heavy favorite—but I didn’t think he’d win that easy. It was kind of stunning.”

No Cal-bred has won the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962 and only three overall. But his connections and fans hope California Chrome will represent his namesake state—and Los Alamitos—in style.

At the backstretch cafe, Quarter Horse regulars congratulated Sherman. “If he can go a mile and a half, you’ve got another Secretariat,” said Charley Smith, a retired AQHR Hall of Fame jockey and Los Alamitos legend. “He’s awesome.”

Outside the track gates, the electronic marquee reads: “Home of Super-Star California Chrome.”

“His name is already in lights,” Carolyn Coburn said.

California Chrome learned a lot as a juvenile, observed Sherman, and those early lessons are now paying off.

“As a 2-year-old, he was perfect,” the trainer said. “He’s the only horse who ever came to me as a trainer that was 100% sound. Good legs. But green!”

California Chrome ran well in his first two starts, both 4 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park. After placing in his debut April 26, he won on his second try against state-breds May 17. After a hiccup in his first stakes try, he won the state-bred Graduation Stakes at Del Mar July 31.

“We put blinkers on him,” Sherman said. “(I) made some little changes with equipment. That worked. Then we had so much trouble in the (Del Mar) Futurity (gr. I); awful trip, in between horses. He got hit in the head with a whip. Still, he only lost by two lengths. After that race, I just hoped he came back in one piece.

“But he learned a lot out of that experience,” Sherman added. “It showed his gameness. And now, he’s undefeated as a 3-year-old.” 

Meanwhile, the owners are preparing for their first trip to Louisville. Their entourage numbers 18 (so far).

They need to make sure to pack California Chrome’s cookies, noted Carolyn Coburn; like the horse, they’re made in California.

“He only eats one brand—Mrs. Pasture’s (from Walnut Creek),” she said. “Any others, he just spits out.”