The world of sports has its unlikely stories. Now it has a topper, a horse named California Chrome. The Kentucky Derby has no idea what's about to hit it.
Saturday's Santa Anita Derby became a backdrop for the improbable. Make that the unbelievable.
It wasn't just that the gorgeous chestnut horse from trainer Art Sherman's barn ran away with the $1-million Grade I race. Based on the horse's previous outings, the victory was no surprise. Nor was the winning margin of 51/4 lengths, making his last four victories, all under rides by veteran Victor Espinoza, total 241/4 lengths of daylight.
FOR THE RECORD:
Santa Anita Derby: In the April 6 Sports section, a column said that the horse Not For Love was the mother of Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome. In fact, Not For Love is the sire of Love the Chase, California Chrome's dam. —
Going into Saturday's race, which attracted a crowd of 35,241 to get a look at this new 3-year-old star, California Chrome had already established himself as the favorite to win the Derby.
This was just frosting on that cake, as well as a first-hand beat-down for two other Derby prospects, trainer Bob Baffert's Hoppertunity and John Sadler's Candy Boy. They got a nice view of California Chrome's rear end, finishing second and third, respectively, and likely will try again in Louisville on May 3.
Going in, we all knew about the horse. We also knew about Sherman, the 77-year-old veteran whose most important previous trip to Churchill Downs was as an 18-year-old exercise rider for Swaps, who won in 1955.
After this Santa Anita Derby, Sherman started to refer to California Chrome as "my Swaps."
What wasn't that well known were the hows, whys and holy-cows-this-can't-be-trues of the connections.
Ah, where to start.
California Chrome was bred in California. If he wins the Derby, he will be only the fourth horse from the Golden State to do so. He trains at Los Alamitos, where other Triple Crown prospects have yet to tread.
His mother was named Not For Love, a mare who won one race and was purchased for $8,000 by Steve Coburn of Wellington, Nev., and Perry Martin of Yuba City. Breeders from the massive farms behind all those white fences and manicured grounds in Kentucky wouldn't wipe their feet on a doormat outside the barn of an $8,000 broodmare.
California Chrome was Not For Love's first foal. Eventually, the owners contacted Sherman, asked him to train their baby, called him their "Derby horse" and presented him with a schedule of races that would get them to Churchill Downs. Sherman giggled quietly, but liked these neophytes and their enthusiasm so much that he took the horse.
It needs to be understood that, most of the time, a Derby horse — especially such a heavy favorite — comes from the careful planning and bloodline study of rich people and families who have been in the business forever. They have millions and spend it breeding the best to the best so they can have more millions.
Coburn described himself and Martin as "working class people." He said each still get up around 4 a.m. and make long drives to work. Neither is starving, but neither would even make the conversation about blue bloods.
They were asked how they would celebrate Saturday night. Coburn said, "We haven't decided yet which McDonald's to go to."
Martin runs the Martin Testing Lab. "We test high-reliability equipment, the kind where somebody dies if something goes wrong," he says.