In California Chrome’s Barn, a Hopeful Network of Relative Strangers

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (June 3, 2014)—Art Sherman is not a complicated man. He is 77 and proud of a life that is longer on memories than it is on bankroll. Sixty years ago, he was a kid from Brooklyn learning about horses from a crew of cowboys.

He survived them and became a jockey, mostly for broke horsemen on both coasts, before finding his true gift on backwater shed rows like this one, where he works amid the sounds of rakes scraping gravel and noses thumping against feed tubs. He has known plenty of characters, but not many like the ones he is surrounded by now.

There are Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, the breeders and owners of their famous colt. They both wear bushy mustaches and have found solace in horses, but they have little else in common.

There is Victor Espinoza, the jock who rides him. Espinoza overcame a crippling fear of horses to become one of the best jockeys in the nation, until he got a little too comfortable there and found himself back among the ordinary rank of riders. He met a woman and then the right horse.

Then there are the Delgado brothers, Willie and Alberto. Sherman changed both riders’ lives, but now one of them is heartbroken about it.

Few of these characters know one another all that well. In some cases, they remain strangers. What they share, however, is a horse named California Chrome, and they all fell hard for him in their own way. The colt comes from common stock and grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in thoroughbred racing, but he is pinup pretty with a lustrous chestnut coat pulled taut over a body that looks wrought by the hands of a sculptor.

His name was pulled out of a cowboy hat — for real — and combines his birthplace with the term used by horse people for the flashes of white on a horse. California Chrome sports bobby socks on all four feet, and his face is creased by a white racing stripe.

He is carrying the hopes of a battered sport on his back along with the curiosity of those who do not really care about horse racing but prefer their narratives dented and dusty and with a whiff of tall tale.

California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, and on the first Saturday in June, he will try to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Sherman knows that is a long time for the sport to wait for a savior.

“My horse is an extra special horse,” he said, matter-of-factly. “If it’s meant to be, he’ll win this race and he’ll be immortal.”

The Odd Couple

Is California Chrome extra special by design or destiny? Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, the owners, make a case for both. They are friendly but not overly familiar partners. Martin lives in Yuba City, Calif., and Coburn 166 miles to the east in Topaz Lake, Nev. Their world views are just as disparate.

They met when they were part of Blinkers On Racing Stable, one of the syndicates that allow horse enthusiasts to own a small piece of a runner while learning the game. They got along in the way that opposites sometimes do.

“Perry was with me before Steve,” said Scott Sherwood, the syndicate’s founder and managing partner. “He definitely was the shy one of the two.”

They were among the partners in Love the Chase, a small filly who managed only a single victory in six races, all near the bottom level of claiming ranks at Golden Gate Fields. When it was time for Blinkers On to get rid of her, Martin and Coburn decided that they wanted to try their hand at the breeding game and that they might as well do it together.

At the time, a groom in the barn of Love the Chase proclaimed that someone would have to be a “dumbass” to pay anything at all for the filly. The men bought her anyway, for $8,000, and decided they not only had a name, DAP Racing, for their fledgling partnership, but also a good reason to feature a green donkey on their purple racing silks.

Martin, 58, has spent his career employing mind over matter. He owns Martin Testing Laboratories and a chemical company along with his wife, Denise. He earned a master’s degree in solid state physics from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He spent more than a decade performing electronic failure analysis and environmental quality testing for the Air Force at McClellan Air Force Base. He knows avionics and weapons systems, and has briefed members of Congress and the Air Force chief of staff. “Electronic Failure Analysis Handbook,” a textbook he wrote, is more than 500 pages.

“He thinks more than he talks,” said John Harris, who owns Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., where Love the Chase resides and California Chrome was bred and raised.

Martin immersed himself in the puzzle of pedigree and thought long and hard about how he was going to succeed in the breeding business. He bought into the theory that a good horse could come from anywhere. He chose the stallion Lucky Pulpit, who stood for a bargain basement $2,000, which seemed fair for a runner who had won only three of his 22 starts.

Martin understood, however, that the female side of the family can be far more important to passing on the traits of a runner. In Love the Chase, he and Coburn had a bloodline rich in stamina and class. California Chrome descends from the mare Betty Derr, whose line includes another California-bred horse, Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner, as well as Iron Liege, the ’57 Derby champ.

“It is a line also dotted with some of the most respected human names in the breeding business as well, such as Louis B. Mayer, Warner L. Jones, Will Farish and Raymond Guest,” said Sid Fernando, a pedigree consultant. “These breeders utilized some of the greatest staying sires in this country to breed these mares.”

Martin was so convinced that he had built a classic horse that before California Chrome ever walked onto a racetrack he sent an email to Sherman, the trainer, with the header “The Road to the Derby,” laying out the races the colt would run to get there.

Sherman thought his new clients were earnest but perhaps a little goofy.

“It’s everybody’s dream, but not every dream comes true,” he said. “They must got somebody up there looking out for them. Chrome has hit every one of those races in the plan.”

In fact, with each passing month, the value of California Chrome has increased. In January, after the colt won the California Cup Derby, Lucky Pulpit’s stud fee was increased to $10,000 a coupling, and suddenly he had a full book of 124 mares awaiting him. Next year that price is likely to double.

In March, after California Chrome ran away with the San Felipe Stakes, Martin and Coburn turned down $6 million for half of the colt. They have turned down another $1.5 million for Love the Chase as well as six-figure offers for California Chrome’s full sisters, a foal and yearling still at Harris Farm.

Now, after six straight stakes victories and nearly $3.5 million in purse earnings, the breeding farms in central Kentucky have come calling with multimillion-dollar offers to syndicate California Chrome whether he wins the Triple Crown or not.

“That $6 million that they refused earlier is chicken feed for whatever he’s going to be worth now,” Sherman said. “He’s already worth $20 million.”

One reason they keep turning down the money is that the making of California Chrome has been more than just an intellectual pursuit for Martin. He and his wife have been driving the 270 miles from their home to the San Joaquin Valley and Harris Farms.

It is a working ranch scented by California’s largest feedlot, and it has been drained of all color by a relentless drought. It is the farthest thing from a postcard of horse country, but the Martins have traveled there for years to visit Love the Chase, California Chrome and now his two sisters.

“They are here a lot, and it’s not for a quick visit,” said Dave McGlothlin, who runs the horse division of Harris Farms. “They bring carrots and spend the afternoon.”

But the more California Chrome has won, the less Martin has wanted to talk about his horse. He skipped the news conference after the Derby, and did not go to Baltimore for the Preakness. He has not responded to phone or email messages and has told Sherman, Coburn and Harris that he has no interest in speaking to the news media.

It has been up to Coburn, a machinist by nurture and a showman by nature, to fill the void. He enthusiastically answers questions that he is not even asked, and has done it with tears in his eyes and the ardor of an evangelist.

As Coburn, 61, tells the story, it already has the whiff of an American folk tale. Three weeks before Chrome was born, he said, he had a dream that sent him tugging his wife awake so he could deliver a prophecy.

“I believe it’s going to be a big chestnut colt with a white blaze,” Coburn told her.

When Carolyn Coburn first laid eyes on the foal in his stall, she called to her husband.

“Come here,” she said. “There is your dream.”

When he looked inside, he was inspired.

“This horse is going to do something big,” he told his wife. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to stay in the game to make sure this colt gets to be the best that he can be.”

Coburn has been talking about his gift from heaven ever since. In January, when California Chrome was merely a promising colt, with three wins in seven starts, Coburn walked into Sharkey’s Casino in Gardnerville, Nev., and bet $1,000 at odds of 200-1 that he would win the Kentucky Derby.

In the weeks before the Derby, he proclaimed Chrome’s victory on the first Saturday of May “a done deal.”

“It will be 36 years this year since there’s been a Triple Crown winner,” Coburn said. “He will be the first California-bred to ever win a Triple Crown.”

The Jockey

There was a birthday cake waiting for him in the winners’ circle on May 23, along with a dozen of his colleagues — all of them race riders, many of them half his age. Victor Espinoza was spending his 42nd birthday at Santa Anita Park, riding a few races atop a couple of decent horses.

He was having quite a month. Victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were behind him, and another crack at a Triple Crown awaited him in 15 days at the Belmont Stakes. He was not yet ready to talk about the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, as the Belmont is known.

“I’m still having fun from the last two wins — I’m not thinking about the next race,” Espinoza said then, a lighthouse smile creasing a face as cracked and worn as an old saddle.

Espinoza had been in this position before, in 2002 when War Emblem went to New York with a chance to sweep the series. He does not remember what he did then to celebrate his 30th birthday. He does remember not having terribly much fun. He was in his prime and on top of the sport, but it had not been easy for him to get there.

He had grown up afraid of horses and had to work at making them comfortable with him. He struggled with his English. Espinoza was being pushed and pulled by the pressure of the Triple Crown attempt and the demands of a tough boss, the trainer Bob Baffert, who had come close to winning a Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.

Espinoza’s previous bid for history ended before it started: War Emblem scraped his knees after stumbling at the start, and from there the Belmont got worse: He finished 19 lengths behind a 70-1 shot named Sarava.

“I thought that was my shot,” he said, “and that was it.”

Espinoza kept his head down and continued to grind out a living at the top of the national jockey standings. Over the next five years he averaged more than 200 victories and more than $12 million in purses by being what his agent, Brian Beach, called a steady Eddy. Espinoza is a natural lightweight (112 pounds), runs five miles a day and is a regular in the weight room.

“He doesn’t drink, and he’s not a partyer,” Beach said. “He’s light and a good finisher. He gives an honest appraisal of the horse after he gets off. No sugarcoating it — you know where you stand with Victor.”

Four years ago, as his 38th birthday approached, Espinoza took an honest appraisal of himself. He was receiving fewer mounts and winning less often. His annual earnings were half of what they had been. He decided it was his own fault. He was tired and bored.

“I wasn’t hungry and I wasn’t having any fun,” he said. “I was thinking of retiring.”

He was beginning a personal relationship, one that made him consider abandoning his bachelor ways. She was younger than he was and did not know much about horse racing or his career. Espinoza liked it that way.

They were nearly a year into the relationship when she found out he had won a Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was aboard one of those horses who had gone to the Belmont Stakes with a shot at sweeping the series.

“Have you ever thought about doing it again?” she asked him.

Espinoza explained to her that winning a single Derby was hard enough and that the odds were long that he would find a horse with the ability to win another one, let alone capture the Preakness and return to New York with a Triple Crown hanging in the balance. But the conversation haunted him. “Now that I’m happy away from the track,” he told himself, “why can’t I be happier on it?”

There was no reason. Espinoza decided to look forward to the mornings when he would get on horses and try to drum up new business instead of dreading them. He chose to enjoy his time aboard the creatures who had taken him from a farm in Mexico to a big house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and another on the beach near Del Mar.

Espinoza decided to win another Derby for his girlfriend, to win another one for himself. Now, all he needed was the right horse. One year passed, then another, and another, and America’s most famous race went off without him.

But one morning last August at Del Mar, Espinoza was working a horse on the racetrack when he saw a flash of white blow by him. He saw the ivory face and the matching socks. The colt’s narrow frame and playfulness left little doubt he was a 2-year-old.

When the colt got to running, however, Espinoza was transfixed. He hit the ground as if he were walking on clouds. He stretched out as supplely as a yogi. Espinoza asked around and found that the horse’s name was California Chrome. He is not one to study The Daily Racing Form or pore over video, but he did watch replays of California Chrome’s previous races.

“I fell crazy for that horse,” he said. “I told Brian about him and that someday I’d like to ride him.”

The Delgado Brothers

These days, Willie Delgado is the most celebrated exercise rider in horse racing. Each morning at Belmont Park, he is surrounded by cameras and asked to tell the world how California Chrome is feeling. He is good at it, too — smiling, exuberant and poetic.

“He trains himself,” he said. “He’s half-human — best ever.”

He knows the colt’s quirks: how he likes to drop his shoulder and spin when agitated, how he nibbles and bites at his groom or passing horses.

Delgado, 46, is a race tracker. He ate himself out of a career as a jockey — zero victories in 45 starts. He never got any traction as a trainer, either, managing six victories in 116 starts, but not one of them for his most loyal owner: himself.

But he does know how to communicate with a horse in the morning and pass on what he has learned to his trainer. It’s a skill set that can be worth $700 or so a week, and some ample bonus money with the right horse.

In California Chrome, Delgado knows he has hit the jackpot, but not without a high cost. This was supposed to be his brother’s ticket to the big time.

Alberto Delgado, 49, is a race rider who was good enough to win a 1982 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey and almost 3,000 races, mostly in Maryland. In November 2012, however, he left the mid-Atlantic circuit for California after being suspended for 30 days for “failure to put forth his best effort” on a 1-2 favorite. He knew that he was heading into one of the toughest circuits in horse racing without knowing a single trainer or owner.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to follow my heart,’ ” he said.

When Alberto Delgado arrived, he did what new faces do. He haunted the backside in the mornings, meeting trainers and offering to get on any horse they had. Weeks went by before anyone took him up on it, and then it was only 50-1 shots in cheap races.

He caught a break when an exercise rider scheduled to work horses for Sherman failed to show up and Delgado filled in. One of the horses he was atop that morning was California Chrome. Delgado liked the feel of him.

“How many races has this horse won?’ he asked Sherman.

“None, he’s a baby,” the trainer replied.

Sherman had a soft spot for scuffling jocks — he was one himself. He asked Alberto Delgado back to work horses in the mornings. He put him on a couple of live ones in the afternoon.

“I was known as a poor man’s jock,” Sherman said. “I rode for guys who had one- or two-horse stables, and more often than I like to admit I’d put the $25 for jock fees up myself. These guys didn’t have it, and if I didn’t put it up, the horse would be scratched.”

When California Chrome made his debut on April 26, 2013, at Hollywood Park, Alberto Delgado had the mount and finished second at odds of 6-1. The trainer’s son and assistant, Alan Sherman, was disappointed: He had put $500 on the colt to win.

But Delgado rode California Chrome well enough to earn a return engagement the next month and guided the colt to a two-and-three-quarter-length victory. As soon as Delgado got off him, he told Steve Coburn what Colburn and Martin already knew.

“This horse will win the Derby,” Alberto Delgado told him. “I’ve been riding for 31 years, and I never felt that before. It was weird.”

In the meantime, Alberto Delgado had called his little brother, Willie, and invited him to Del Mar, the beach town racetrack built by Bing Crosby that is a summer playground for the surf-meets-the-turf set. He watched Alberto and California Chrome win again, this time in a stakes race. It took Willie 24 hours before he decided to go west, too.

“I went back to Maryland and got rid of the horses I was training,” Willie Delgado said.

He, too, landed in Sherman’s barn when California Chrome’s regular exercise rider was on vacation. Alberto recommended his brother.

Willie and Alberto were together Sept. 4 when California Chrome was made one of the favorites for the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity.

Nearing the far turn of the seven-furlong race, California Chrome hurtled forward as if sprung from a slingshot. Alberto Delgado decided to split horses in the stretch, but the colt took an accidental whip to his face from the jockey of a rival, stopping his momentum. They finished two lengths behind the winner, in sixth place.

“If I had gotten outside, I would have won,” Alberto Delgado said.

Still, he retained the mount, but his next start on California Chrome was his last. In the $200,000 Golden State Juvenile, he planned to go straight for the lead from his inside post position. Instead, the horse reared up when the gate opened and came out running in last place. He finished sixth again.

Alberto Delgado chalked it up to bad luck. Sherman knew it was more than that.

“When you don’t ride enough, situations come up and you don’t know what to do,” Sherman said. “You got to ride every day, and get with it, and get your timing, a natural thing. You can’t worry, ‘Is he going to take me off this horse?’ Bad things happen then, and they did.”

Willie Delgado stayed with the horse. Alberto Delgado was out.

Two months later, Sherman called Beach and asked him if Espinoza was available to ride in the King Glorious Stakes. Sherman had used Espinoza at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California when the jockey was first starting out. He was looking for a “steady rider” for California Chrome, one who would get out of the way of the best horse Sherman ever had in his barn.

Beach remembered his conversation with Espinoza about the fast colt with “all that white.” He said absolutely. California Chrome has won six straight since Espinoza has climbed on.

Not long ago, Alberto Delgado returned home to Maryland to put back together what has been a solid, if not spectacular, career. He watched the Kentucky Derby at a friend’s party. He knew California Chrome would run well.

“When he won, I was heartbroken,” he said.

Alberto and Willie do not talk about California Chrome. After the colt won the Preakness, Alberto showed up at a party at Chrome’s barn. He hugged his brother and shook the hand of Sherman and Espinoza.

“Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be, and that’s what I’m going to go with,” Alberto Delgado said. “I’m rooting for the horse.”

The Trainer

There is the crow of a rooster and Art Sherman is walking his shed row, running his hands over the flank of a horse, gripping the ankle of another. He smiles as he passes the empty stall, the one that belongs to California Chrome, the colt who has taken him further than he ever thought possible.

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” he said. “If a good one came along, I had owners that would sell them before I could develop them.”

Sherman is beyond the twilight of his career. He cherishes his nap time and confesses to spending too much time with morning television. Sherman also does not quite know what to make of the good fortune that landed in his barn and has upended a half-dozen or so lives.

Much has been made of his association with Swaps, the California-bred who won the Derby in 1955. He was a teenage exercise rider who shared a boxcar with the colt for four days on their way to Churchill Downs. It was what happened in the years before and after that, on Rex Ellsworth’s ranch in Chino, Calif., that Sherman cherishes most.

His father was a barber, and his clientele included horseplayers who took a look at tiny Art and decided that he had the perfect makeup for a jockey. Now, all he needed was to learn about horses. Ellsworth’s ranch became his Cowboy College. The East Coast breeders were genteel and aristocratic and rich enough to stay that way. Ellsworth was about saving money.

The young horses were kept in pens, and to break them Sherman and his confederates threw sacks over their heads and saddles on their backs.

“I got bucked off four or five times every morning,” Sherman said.

It was a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week job, much like the one he has now. Sherman pulled foals out of mares and rode the pastures alongside a stallion to determine what mares were in heat and ready for Khaled, Swaps’s father and one of California’s greatest sires. He made $75 a month in his first year, $150 his second and $250 his last.

“I learned the fundamentals,” Sherman said. “I learned how committed you had to be to be in this business.”

During his riding days, he was more like Alberto Delgado than Victor Espinoza. Sherman is proudest of his career as a trainer. He was not a natural. His wife, Faye, helped keep the family afloat by working at Bay Meadows Racetrack for 30 years in the track gift shop and as a parimutuel clerk. Art Sherman had a part-time job taking bets, too.

“Making a living was tough,” he said.

But over 53 years of marriage, Art and Faye built a family around horses. Alan Sherman, 46, works alongside Art and has been California Chrome’s primary caretaker in the Triple Crown run. Steve Sherman, 50, has a stable out of Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, Calif.

They will all be in New York for the Belmont, and that is what Art says he is going to appreciate most of all. As for California Chrome, Art Sherman is philosophical. Sixty years on the racetrack have taught him that all the great ones get beaten and that fairy tales seldom come true.

“He’s done everything I could ever want in the horse,” Art Sherman said. “He doesn’t have to prove anything to me.”