California Chrome – The Horse, The Myth, A Legend?


By Sara Dacus

Sara Dacus

Sara Dacus

While I was flipping through radio stations earlier this week, I heard Trace Adkins sing “Her favorite color is chrome,” and I realized this week, my favorite color is chrome, too:  California Chrome.  Horse racing fans—both casual and compulsive—will be watching Saturday evening to see if California Chrome will win the Belmont Stakes and become the first horse since 1978 to capture the elusive Triple Crown.

A Triple Crown would be great for racing, and I hope Chrome is wearing that blanket of white carnations at the conclusion of the race.  However, I don’t bleed the color chrome and will not be heartbroken if he does not become the twelfth horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

There’s a lot to love about California Chrome’s almost mythical story.  He and his connections are living the Gatsby-esque American dream. Chrome is the only horse currently racing for owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, two working-class guys who spent a paltry $10,000 on the thoroughbred.  Coburn, the Wilford Brimley look-alike who is the more outspoken of the two, claims that before Chrome was born, he had a dream that the foal would be a colt with four white feet and a blaze.  Martin mapped out a Triple Crown plan for Chrome before he ever set foot on a track.

The two men selected 77-year old trainer Art Sherman because they liked his old-school ways and the individualized attention his small barn could give to their horse. Sherman hadn’t come close to the Kentucky Derby since he was 18 years old and served as an exercise rider to 1955 winner Swaps, who happens to be in California Chrome’s bloodlines.

Chrome’s road to the Triple Crown included a win in the final stakes race at Hollywood Park in December 2013 and a victory in the San Felipe Stakes.  Then, in a display of independence, confidence, and loyalty, Coburn and Martin turned down a $6 million offer for 51% interest Chrome that would have mandated a change in silks and trainer.  After this, Chrome went on to win the Santa Anita Derby.  The next stop was the Kentucky Derby, and this was Chrome’s first time to leave the state of California.  Before that race, Sherman visited Swaps’s grave and said a little prayer. The prayer must have been heard because Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby.  After a victory in the Preakness two weeks later, Coburn stated that California Chrome was “America’s Horse.”

This story of unlikely underdogs beating the odds is the stuff of legends. So yes, I am a chromie, and right now my favorite color is chrome. However, this enthusiasm is not without a few reservations.

I appreciate that consecutive Kentucky Derby winners can be owned by both horse racing blue bloods and working-class men.  A co-owner of Orb, the 2013 winner, is Ogden Mills Phipps, whose father won the coin toss for Secretariat in 1969 but chose another horse, and whose grandmother was known as The Queen of the Turf and whose great-grandfather was a partner with Lord Derby in a racing stable in France.  In contrast, Coburn currently works as a press operator for a company that manufactures magnetic strips for credit cards and hotel keys and Martin is the hands-on owner of Martin Testing Laboratories (he stated that one reason he was not present at the Preakness was that he was behind at work due to Derby hoopla).  The difference between these two sets of owners shows a diversity in our sport that I celebrate.  However, I wish our working class gentlemen would show a little more of the class that the sport is known for and not be the Happy Gillmores of horse racing.

Coburn and Martin race under the name DAP Racing, which stands for “Dumb-Ass Partners,” a moniker that makes me cringe.  Apparently, after their first purchase (Chrome’s dam Love the Chase), they were told that only a dumb ass would buy that horse.  For me, watching the pageantry of the silks is part of the glorious fun of horse racing, so I flinch when I see that buck-toothed donkey prominently displayed on jockey Victor Espinoza’s back and the DAP emblazoned on the front of his silks and on Chrome’s blinker hood.

I also winced at Coburn’s post-Preakness antics, when he publicly aired his grievances with Churchill Downs on live TV in an ungentlemanly fashion.  “I just want to thank the people of Maryland for all the hospitality they’ve shown us.  Churchill, you need to take a lesson on this.  You really, really do.”  He later elaborated on this theme at the post-race press conference.  “I’ve said this once, I’ve said it 50 times, Churchill Downs needs to call Maryland to get a lesson in hospitality because these people right here, they’ve treated us like we’re royalty, and I can’t say thank you enough . . . We’re not royalty.  We don’t expect to be treated like royalty, but the hospitality that these folks in Maryland have shown us is top shelf.  I’m talking about top shelf liquor.”  Way to keep it classy, Coburn.

Although Coburn speaks of the people he loves in a very endearing and emotional fashion, when he speaks, a bit of redneck comes out, especially when he’s discussing his cocky confidence in California Chrome.  In the press conference following the Kentucky Derby, he said, “I said this horse would win the Kentucky Derby.  I said, ‘When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby,’ I said, ‘I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown.’”  (Unrelated: He also said California Chrome “speaks two languages, Mexican and English.” Groan).  Earlier this week, he guaranteed reporters a win.  “There is not a doubt in my mind, this horse will win the Triple Crown,” he said.  “No doubt, this horse will win the Triple Crown.”

My final reservation from fully supporting California Chrome is unrelated to my feelings concerning his connections but is based on my love for my home track of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and the contenders who elect to compete there.  During the past decade, ten Triple Crown race winners prepped at Oaklawn. A Belmont win for Ride on Curlin (2nd in the Arkansas Derby and Preakness) or Commissioner (6th in the Arkansas Derby) only strengthens the local program and the class of horse attracted to Oaklawn.

So California Chrome, I raise my Belmont Breeze to you and wish you the trip of a lifetime around that oval on Saturday, but if you’re not standing in the winner’s circle, I won’t mourn too long before I transfer my Triple Crown dreams to 2015. 

* * *

Sara Dacus was born and has spent the entirety of her life in Searcy, Arkansas.  She is an eighth grade English teacher for Searcy Public Schools.  In between teaching gigs, Sara wrote for five years in a hospital public relations position.  While she was dating her now-husband Casey Dacus, he took her to Oaklawn, and something about it really clicked with her.  Now she is an avid horse racing enthusiast who follows the sport closely, counting down the days until the live season in Arkansas begins.  The Dacuses have a little son who has a horse-racing themed nursery.

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