By Jennie Rees, The Courier-Journal
It was mid-afternoon in Coalinga, Calif., as 30 people jammed into a conference room best suited for eight.
The horse handlers and maintenance and office staff at Harris Farms huddled around a television, anxiously waiting to see the chestnut colt they had raised since birth take America’s grandest racing stage for the Kentucky Derby.
Dan Kiser, racing and bloodstock manager for the owners of California Chrome’s sire, was at Churchill Downs to root on the son of their stallion, Lucky Pulpit. He saw California Chrome capture the 140th Kentucky Derby by 13/4 lengths. He heard the near-record crowd’s roar. He felt the rush of victory. He burst with pride.
But it was later, watching a YouTube video of those Harris employees, that a different kind of emotion hit, as he realized that, while the program lists Steve Coburn and Perry Martin as owners, those working in anonymity on Harris Farms and at the track feel a propriety kinship with California Chrome that’s every bit as valid.
“To watch their reaction after that horse won,” Kiser said, “that showed me how many fingerprints are on this horse to get him to where he is today.”
California Chrome, the first California-born horse to wear the roses in 52 years, flew to Baltimore on Monday to prepare for Saturday’s 139th Preakness Stakes, where he’ll attempt to take the second step toward becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
A slew of role players will be watching, and there’s more than pride and bragging rights at stake.
For Harris Farms, there’s immeasurable free publicity and a boost for being the home of the sire of the Derby winner, who is sure to be more in demand.
The farm has raised world-class horses before, highlighted by 2000-2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow, who like California Chrome was conceived, born and raised on the property. But California Chrome is the Harris’ first winner of America’s most famous race.
The racetrack crew — the groom and exercise rider — are typically given part of a percentage of the purse earnings or a cash bonus by the trainer and/or the owner. They are with the horse daily when he is racing.
“We’ve always worked as a family, a team,” said William Delgado, a former jockey and trainer who has been California Chrome’s morning rider since November and whose brother, Alberto, rode the Derby winner in his early races. “The horse belongs to Perry and Steve, but being we are the ones doing the work, it’s like he becomes part of ours. …
“Like when they ask me how he’s doing, I’m like, ‘My horse is doing good.”
Out of the mare Love the Chase, whose only victory in six starts came in an $8,000 maiden-claiming race, California Chrome is the first horse the owners bred.
Boarded at Harris Farms, Love the Chase was bred to their stallion Redattore in 2009 but did not get pregnant. Coburn and Martin wanted to breed her back to Redattore the next year, but the stallion did not return from his off-season stint breeding mares in Brazil.
Instead Love the Chase was mated with Lucky Pulpit, who was bred, raced and continues to be owned by Larry and Marianne Williams of Parma, Idaho. The Williamses and Kiser, who runs their Tree Top Ranches in the Boise Valley where their racehorses are raised and get their early training, were among those who came to Louisville to root for California Chrome.
“Everything in this story, there are so many little twists of fate,” Kiser said. “People making the right decisions, but also there’s a tremendous amount of luck that guided those decisions.”