Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: California Chrome triumphs in Kentucky Derby

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

California dreamers, this was your race! Saturday’s 140th Kentucky Derby was the unfolding of a Cinderella story — and there may be more to come.

Only in this real-life fairy tale could the offspring of a seemingly unpromising $8,000 mare bred to a $2,500 stallion win the crown jewel of horse racing on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in May. But co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin apparently saw something special in the horse from the time he was foaled. They even refused to sell a $6 million share in him.

Coburn told an NBC-TV sports announcer that he and his partner had once been called a couple of “dumb asses” for buying the mare. So, they took that moniker and ran with it, actually adopting it as an icon to put on their silks. By the end of the race, they got the last “hee-haw” laugh on their critics.

Not that California Chrome hadn’t already racked up a respectable record. Four straight wins before the Derby were nothing to trifle with. However, few horses come to Kentucky undefeated. Even his most staunch supporters admitted that Chrome sometimes had trouble breaking cleanly out of the starting gate, which could cause problems. Then, too, critics said, he’d never before run outside of California.

For Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer, it was both nostalgic and exhilarating. Back in 1955, he was a young exercise rider for Swaps, who won the Derby that year. He said he had stopped by Swaps’ grave this year and said a prayer, hoping for another Swaps. He got his wish, and this time he got to join California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza in the winner’s circle.

While some folks researched breeding and found this colt lacking, he does have notable forebears through his maternal bloodline. Love the Chase, his unheralded dam, may have been unimpressive on the track, but she has an interesting pedigree. She is inbred 3×3 to champion Numbered Account, a daughter of the great Buckpasser. Numbered Account was the champion 2-year-old filly in 1971. She later foaled multiple Grade 1 star and successful sire Private Account, as well as Grade 1 queen Dance Number.

Love the Chase is by Not for Love (a son of Dance Number) and out of a mare by Polish Numbers (a son of Numbered Account). The best these two could do was to place in a single stakes race apiece, but they went on to become leading sires in Maryland.

California Chrome’s fourth dam is by French champion Vaguely Noble, who beat Sir Ivor in 1968. His fifth dam is Princess Ribot by the famous Ribot and out of a Princequillo mare — both noted for stamina.

Getting back to the Swaps connection — Numbered Account was out of a Swaps mare, Moreover.

In the end, however, it comes down to a horse with the heart to fight for the win — and a bit of racing luck. Can he do it again? “We’re going to Maryland,” promised Coburn. Beyond that — well, who can say? But one thing is for certain — this time, no one will dismiss California Chrome as a mere flash in the pan.

From the May 7-13, 2014, issue

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