05/09/2014 2:41PM

Small-time breeders hit jackpot with California Chrome

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.