05/09/2014 3:41PM

Small-time breeders hit jackpot with California Chrome

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome's co-owner and breeder Perry Martin (center) holds up the Kentucky Derby trophy, with fellow co-owner and breeder Steve Coburn (right) and jockey Victor Espinoza (left) standing beside him in the winner's circle.

Katherine Martin, 83, had seen enough of her hospital room in Iron Mountain, Mich., on May 1. She was being treated for the flu but, feeling better, was ready to leave.

With a better offer in Louisville, Ky., a few days later, she checked out of the hospital, despite pleading from nurses.

“They told her, ‘Mrs. Martin, you could die,’ ” recalled her son, Perry Martin.

“She said, ‘I know I could die, but not until I see my son’s horse in the Kentucky Derby. I’m ready, and I’m going.’ ”

With that, Katherine Martin was picked up by another son and driven to Louisville. She was there when Perry Martin’s horse California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

“She’s pretty tough,” Perry Martin said of his mother.

Katherine Martin was back at home in Michigan by the end of the weekend and recovering well at home, according to her son.

“She’s the hometown hero,” Perry Martin said. “She had a healthy dose of adrenaline.”

The same could be said for Martin and co-owner-breeder Steve Coburn. They have realized the dream of every small breeder, watching California Chrome develop from the winner of three stakes for California-breds last summer and winter to the leading 3-year-old in the nation. California Chrome has won 7 of 11 starts and earned $2,552,650. He will be a heavy favorite to win the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 17.

The remarkable rise of California Chrome to national prominence has occurred since last December, when he won the King Glorious Stakes for California-breds at Hollywood Park. This year, he is unbeaten in four starts – the California Cup Derby in January, the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes in March, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in April before the Kentucky Derby.

All of that has been accomplished despite a modest pedigree. The colt is out of Love the Chase, a daughter of Not For Love, who Coburn and Martin raced as members of the Blinkers On syndicate and later purchased privately. Love the Chase’s only win was an $8,000 claimer for maidens at Golden Gate Fields in 2009.

She was bred the next year to Lucky Pulpit, a $2,500 stallion at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif. California Chrome was her first foal.

Coburn, never shy for an opinion, predicted great things for California Chrome before the colt arrived at trainer Art Sherman’s stable in early 2013.

“I said a long time ago that he’d win the Kentucky Derby,” Coburn said Tuesday. “I can’t put in words what I feel in my soul right now.”

Coburn turned 61 on Kentucky Derby Day. He said he handled the chaos of Derby week well until the moments before the race.

“I was fine until I got a little excited when they went into the gate,” he said. “I got a little nervous. That was the only time I got a little shaky.”

California Chrome had a perfect trip in the Derby. Jockey Victor Espinoza had California Chrome behind the leaders to the end of the backstretch, before taking the lead in early stretch.

“It was absolutely perfect,” Coburn said.

By the middle of last week, Coburn and Martin were back home – and back at work. Coburn and his wife, Carolyn, live in Topaz Lake, Nev., south of Reno. Coburn works for a company that makes magnetic tape for the back of credit cards and driver’s licenses.

Martin and his wife, Denise, live in Yuba City, Calif., north of Sacramento. Martin owns a product testing company, which turned out to be quite the busy operation Tuesday.

“Soon as I got back, I had a line of customers, and I had to jump on their stuff,” Martin said. “It made me feel a little normal for a change.”

Coburn planned to work a few days, then travel to California to visit Harris Farms. Love the Chase has a yearling filly and a suckling filly, both by Lucky Pulpit. The dam does not have a 2012 foal because she was not bred in 2011 after foaling California Chrome.

Coburn said he and Martin will race the yearling filly and consider her to be a broodmare prospect in the future.

“I think we’ll probably put her on the track and see what she can do,” Coburn said. “She’s got a good attitude. We’ve got another broodmare if we want to give Love the Chase a break.”

California Chrome’s modest bloodlines and the background of his owners are a contrast to recent Kentucky Derby winners, who were Kentucky-breds. California Chrome is the first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962 and the first non-Kentucky-bred to win the Derby since Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones in 2004.

With a big, white face and five-race winning streak since last December, California Chrome has endeared himself to racing fans, especially in his home state. The roar from a crowd watching on television at Santa Anita when he reached the lead at the top of the stretch rivaled that of any live racing at the Arcadia track May 3.

“We’ve got ‘Chromies’ on our side,” Coburn said. “I think it’s the story behind the horse. For working-class people, they need a hero, and if it’s a horse, let it be. It shows a dream can come true. I think it’s a combination of all those things.”

Martin recalls feeling mentally drained after the race. Weeks of anticipation were over, replaced by a trip to a crowded winner’s circle and the realization that the mission had been accomplished. He said little in a post-race television interview.

“After the race, I was kind of done,” Martin said. “It was too much emotion on too many levels. I had a lot of pride in the horse. A lot of joy [that] my mom could be there. I was happy for Art, Victor, and you can go down the line. It’s so much emotion. I felt it was best to keep my mouth shut.”

Coburn and Martin made occasional trips to see California Chrome after he was foaled and when he was being raised at Harris Farms. There were small instances when Martin noticed California Chrome’s curiosity and energy.

“He’s always been a joy to be around from when he was a foal,” Martin said. “He’d come over and stick his nose up to us and smell. He always seemed to love people. He would show us that he’d be out with his mom. He’d wander off and start doing laps around the pasture.”

Three years later, that colt is the star of American racing.

Vince Piscitelli More than 1 year ago
To the idiot who says all east coasters hate Chrome, please explain or show proof. Vince P
Daisy1Oopsy . More than 1 year ago
There is a deep rooted message in this story. I hope everyone from all walks of life can find something rewarding in this, not only from the people side of this story but from the horse side of it. Just really hits all areas, from California Chrome's dam in distress after he was born to his un ending curiosity. I have not seen a photo yet showing him uninterested, he is always alert and inquisitive. Like his tendency to look like he is sizing things and people up and putting them away in his mental note pad for later reference. Win lose or draw, this horse has made an impact on many thousands and we can only wish for his continued success. Thanks for the story.
Jack Frazier More than 1 year ago
Where a horse is foaled in irrelevant. A long time ago a group of Florida school kids got together and wrote a book of stories about Vietnam Veterans. It was called "Heart of a Warrior and I was fortunate enough to be included in its pages. Chrome has that heart as much as other greats of the track, Secretariat, Roman Brother, Kelso, Spectacular Bid -the list goes on- did. You cannot measure from the outside the heart of a champion nor the desire to win. All Thoroughbreds have much the same ancestors and when it clicks, it clicks. Let us hope that the ride continues. Much as the Great Depression, when America needed a hero, we are now in a trying time again and one which needs a hero. Many of our "heroes" today are paper heroes only. Chrome is the real deal because he gives all of us hope as we look at the new babies by, yes, California stallions who are just as regally bred as their Kentucky counterparts. I am sure the blue-bloods of Kentucky are in a thither. Good.
Marc More than 1 year ago
CC runs like he's out of Tapit, Tiznow, or Pulpit......maybe someone pulled a Dizney. Happens once in a while.
GuyFleegman1 More than 1 year ago
And the East Coasters...HATE this horse LOL AMAZING!
GuyFleegman1 More than 1 year ago
Especially A Beyer...who's figures mean NOTHING when the gates open
liljock More than 1 year ago
An improbable tale now part of modern Derby lore. I give them credit for going to a son of Pulpit, he is a terrific sire of sires.
Michael Griffiths More than 1 year ago
Horse Racing is still the last hope of "the rags to riches" story
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Having bred cal-breds for 15 years from kentucky bloodlines,I find a piece of me living through these two partners. Whenever you plan your matings you always have that hope to find a gold nugget.I'm sure that happened with Snow Chief and other great Cal-breds.This one and hopefully more is for the little guy (blue collar) not blue blood guy.Hope is what this industry needs.Good Luck to these two hombres!Bring it home to Cali!
Daisy1Oopsy . More than 1 year ago
Well stated Randy Baker. And indeed good and continued luck to Coburn and Martin. And CALIFORNIA CHROME.
Raymond Felder More than 1 year ago
if he beats bayern, dynamic impact and social inclusion then chrome will take the triple crown, hands down.
Honnimae More than 1 year ago
Bayern and Dynamic Impact and Social Inclusion will be the Easiest task it the Belmont Field I don't think any of those Horses are Good
Todd Norris More than 1 year ago
Another special sire not mentioned regularly on the female side of CC's pedigree is Danzig. He sired Belmont winner Danzig Connection from a daughter of Sir Ivor. Danzig's son (Polish Numbers) and Sir Ivor's daughter (Chase the Dream) are the parents of Chase It Down, the dam of California Chrome's slow poke mom, Love the Chase (if she were unraced and you had only her breeding to look at, maybe somebody would have seen what Martin and Coburn saw in her as a broodmare prospect). The mother of Chase the Dream, La Belle Fleur, is out of a Vaguely Noble/Princess Ribot mare. Stamina and class throughout the female bloodlines. And overall, Princequillo, Secretariat's main source of stamina influence shows up NINE times in CC's pedigree!
Matt D. More than 1 year ago
Todd, you may have let the cat out of the bag with that last sentence. I dismissed CC as a legit Derby contender until he waltzed home the last eighth of the Santa Anita Derby in under 12 & 3/5. Only then did I bother to look deeper into his pedigree. With nine veins of Princequillo blood in the family tree there is a chance he may be the recipient of the x-factor (big heart) gene. If not, he's still got plenty of stayer's blood. Princequillo won the Jockey Gold Cup when it was run at 2 miles.
Geronimo2123 . More than 1 year ago
Matt and Todd, Shhh! He gets it twice underneath from the Prinquillo line and the Buckpasser through his first and second dam (The LH X heart gene that M. Haun wrote about...)
Jo Ann Simon More than 1 year ago
A true examination of his total breeding should shut some of the naysayers up, but maybe it's just as well they underestimate him.
Daisy1Oopsy . More than 1 year ago
I don't think enough people checked out his pedigree at first. After 2 wins i did. That is what intrigued me and gave me a lot of hope for him. I am of the opinion that maybe 'too much hands off' of thoroughbred horses when they are young is not conducive to the best way to raise horses. Human contact is essential and very rewarding for man and horse. So Todd Norris, thank you for posting your search.