Haskin's Derby Recap: California Dreamin'

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are literal. Some are figurative. Most don’t come true. But on rare occasions they do, and that is when fairy tales are born.

The fairy tale that is California Chrome was born on Feb. 18, 2011 at Harris Farms near Coalinga, Calif., and for trainer Art Sherman and his sons Alan and Steve, owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, jockey Victor Espinoza, and exercise rider William Delgado, life would never be the same.

That is why more than three years later, on May 3, 2014, which happens to be Coburn’s birthday, emotions hit so hard following the stunning victory of California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), words were difficult to get out.

Perry Martin, standing by the rail with his 83-year-old mother Catherine, helped her into a wheel chair, and as he walked behind her as she was wheeled across the track to the winner’s circle he tried hard fighting back the tears that were welling up. His brother had driven her to Kentucky from Michigan. He tried to speak, but nothing would come out. All he could do was shake his head and say with a quavering voice, “I have to go after my mom.”

Alan Sherman, who is his father’s assistant, was trying to come to terms with his own emotions as he led California Chrome back to the barn area following the winner’s circle ceremonies. He was breathing heavily walking on the track as the cheers from the crowd rained down on him and the colt. The wall of noise that engulfed him was drowned out by the thoughts and feelings swirling around in his head, as he tried to comprehend everything that had happened not only on this day, but over the past couple of months.

“It’s awesome,” he said, only able to get several short exclamatory phrases out at a time. “I can’t believe it; unbelievable. I’m at a loss for words. I’m just so excited. It’s amazing. This is so great. I can’t even imagine (how my father feels right now). I want a beer.”
 
Art Sherman, after arriving in Kentucky, had gone to visit the grave of his beloved Swaps located behind the Kentucky Derby Museum to say a little prayer. Sherman had accompanied Swaps on the train from California to Kentucky in 1955 when he was an 18-year-old exercise rider. His prayer was that California Chrome could be another Swaps. Several days later, Sherman, at age 77, became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. He had found his Swaps.

Overwhelmed by the experience, he said as he was led to the interview room by four Louisville police officers, “This is pretty cool. I’ve never had a police escort before. You think about it, that you’re going to get lucky one day, but maybe it’s all fate somehow. I’m a big believer in fate.”

As Coburn said following the race, “Art Sherman has come full circle, from exercise rider of a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby to training a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby (becoming only the fourth Cal-bred to capture the roses).”

Coburn’s confidence that California Chrome would win the Kentucky Derby bordered on cockiness, as he all but assured victories in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby. But he, like Sherman, believed he and California Chrome were being driven by fate. Several days before the expected birth of a foal by Lucky Pulpit, who stands for a $2,500 stud fee, out of a mare who raced for an $8,000 claiming tag, Coburn had a dream the foal would be a big chestnut with four white socks and a big blaze face. When they went to see the newborn foal, his wife walked over to the stall, took a look inside, and told her husband to come take a look. There before him was the colt in his dreams.

“There’s your dream,” she said.

And Coburn has been clinging to that dream for the past three years, even turning down millions of dollars for half interest in the colt following his brilliant victory in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II). When an offer for eight figures was made following his equally brilliant score in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Coburn’s response was, “Last week, my answer was ‘no,’ and this week, my answer is ‘hell, no.’”

Despite the temptations to sell, he kept thinking back to that day at the farm when he told his wife, “We better hang on to this ride, because it’s going to be a good one. And no matter what we have to do to keep him healthy and in the game, we’re gonna do it.”

For William Delgado, fate had worked its way into his life, allowing him to join in the dream. Based in Maryland as an exercise rider and assistant trainer, he decided to come to California, where his brother Alberto was riding a nice 2-year-old Cal-bred named California Chrome, who had won two of six starts, with a several troubled trips. Alberto told William about him, but after the colt’s sixth start, a sixth-place finish in the Golden State Juvenile for Cal-breds, in which the colt broke dead-last, Alberto was replaced by Victor Espinoza. Three days before William was scheduled to return to Maryland, Alan told him he had this colt he wanted him to get on. California Chrome’s regular exercise rider had gone on vacation and the colt was too strong for the girl they put on him. It was strange and bittersweet exercising a horse his brother had ridden, but the first time he got on him he went, “Whoa,” He could immediately feel the power the colt generated. So, Alberto went back to Maryland to ride and William stayed in California and grabbed hold of the dream that had begun at Harris Farms two years earlier.

That was when Love the Chase gave birth to her colt. But it was not an easy birth. The mare had lacerated the wall of her uterus and could not be re-bred that year. She was bright and active and outwardly unaffected by the ordeal, but she and her foal had to remain confined to the stall for an extended period of time while the mare was treated and recovering.

“He got to develop quite a little personality and became pretty independent,” said Harris Farms general manager Dave McGlothlin, who remembered the birth of another big strapping colt at the farm named Tiznow. “He wasn’t able to be out with the others to socialize and carry on so he was a little more focused on people than he was on horses. Once he got out and adapted he came around fine. He had a rather unremarkable childhood otherwise. But he could be a little bit impetuous.”

McGlothlin could see history repeating itself after California Chrome’s victories in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.

“I think we are seeing something special,” he said. “It’s so great for racing in general, because of the profile of the owners and the trainer. This is a movie in the making. I hope it generates a lot of ripples and can rejuvenate the interest and enthusiasm in racing. It’s just so great in the respect that from out of nowhere you get this. We always had a lot of faith in Lucky Pulpit and it’s great to see him get the recognition. He’s been a very useful and popular stallion for several years. It’s an exciting time at the farm. We’re hoping (California Chrome) makes Cal-breds significant again. It’s fun to watch it happen for wonderful people, and I just hope the ride continues.”
 
When California Chrome went out on his own and began training, he impressed Harris Farms trainer Per Antonsen.

“He always had a lot of class,” he said. “He was very precocious and very forward and never missed a beat. He was a sound horse; never had a temperature, never got sick, and never had a pimple on him the whole time he was here. He enjoyed training and I told the owners, ‘You’re going to have a lot of fun with this one.’

“We breezed him here a little bit and when he went to the track to Art Sherman he worked him right off the bat within a week’s time, so I knew he was going forward. We always partner horses in sets of four and five and he learned to gallop inside and outside and between horses, and he just enjoyed everything he did. It’s amazing what he’s turned out to be. He really grew into a helluva horse. How much can he improve?"

He would find out four weeks later at Churchill Downs when a handsome chestnut colt proved to the skeptics and the elitists that it does Reign in Southern California.

With Espinoza aboard, California Chrome rattled off victories in the state-bred King Glorious Stakes by 6 1/4 lengths, the state-bred Cal Cup Derby by 5 1/2 lengths, the San Felipe by 7 1/4 lengths, and the Santa Anita Derby eased up by 5 1/4 lengths.

After the Cal Cup Derby in late January, Alan Sherman spoke in glowing terms of California Chrome and how much potential the colt had. He felt the Cal Cup Derby was no fluke, but instead the beginning of a rise to stardom. He blamed his defeats on troubled trips, including a bad start and getting whipped across the face. But most of all, he was thrilled to see his father have a horse this talented so late in his career.

The Derby trail this year had taken a strange and unfortunate turn, as almost every top 2-year-old fell off the trail with an injury, including Shared Belief, who looked as if he was going to be the superstar coming out of California following his brilliant victory in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I). At the time, California Chrome was just a Cal-bred speck on the Derby map until he thrashed the classy and consistent stretch runner Tamarando in the Cal Cup Derby. He no longer was a speck, but he still was considered nothing more than just a good Cal-bred.

But the transplanted Brooklyn, N.Y. native Art Sherman knew he was more than that. And Steve Coburn certainly knew it, boasting that the Santa Anita Derby would be a mere formality, eventually expanding his optimism to the entire Triple Crown. And he backed that up by turning down outrageous offers for the horse, despite being basically a working man, getting up at 4:30 every morning, putting on his boots and heading to work.

As Delgado said, “Steve told me, ‘This is my dream, and you can’t put a price on a dream.’”

Coburn explained that he and Martin have put in so much “blood, sweat, and tears and their savings into this horse,” the emotional impact of the entire experience actually leaves him speechless; well, to a degree.

Mike Pegram, co-owner of Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Hoppertunity. lives right down the road from Coburn, and was well aware of the task he was about to undertake.

“I told him, ‘Steve, you just don’t know how hard this race is to win. You have no idea.’ He’s talking Triple Crown. He’s really enjoying it, and he’s a nice man, but he just doesn’t realize what he’s in for.”

Sherman decided to keep California Chrome, who is now referred to as Junior around the barn, at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, where he has been training since Hollywood Park closed down.

“I’ll just let him soak in that California sun for as long as possible and not have to worry about the weather,” he said prior to shipping to Kentucky. “Everything is becoming overwhelming. I’ve done about 15 radio shows, about four television shows, and I’ve got Sports Illustrated and Fox News becoming. It’s been wild and woolly, I can tell you that. I call him the rock star and I’m just his manager. People knock his pedigree, but there are a lot of knockers out there. To me, a runner is a runner. He’s the people’s horse. He’s fun to be around and the people love him. They come to watch him work and take pictures of him from the side of the road.”

As for not having him work over the Churchill Downs track, Sherman said, “Believe me, he’s tight enough and he’ll run on anything. I don’t worry about racetracks. Whether he wins or not, you’ll see a good race from him, I can promise you that.”

California Chrome had become sort of a folk hero at Los Alamitos, which is mainly a Quarter-Horse track.

“It’s been thrilling to have California Chrome stabled at Los Alamitos,” marketing director Orlando Gutierrez said several weeks ago. “He is giving the track so much attention with his spectacular performances. We simply couldn’t have bought that kind of publicity. Our track kitchen, Schwanie’s Grill, is packed whenever California Chrome works. The Vessels Club restaurant is already serving an Art Sherman Combo, which is Petite Filet, Lobster, and Shrimp. It’s become a popular item on the menu. If California Chrome goes on to do well in the Kentucky Derby, I don’t have the words to say how exciting that would be for Los Alamitos Race Course.”

Meanwhile, at Churchill Downs, Derby horses were arriving from all over. There was a good deal of buzz surrounding Danza, the surprise brilliant winner of the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), as well as the Twinspires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Wicked Strong. The remainder of the field was considered fairly wide open. Of the 23 original Derby Future Wager horses back in November, only Ride On Curlin made to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

On the Monday before the Derby came the eagerly awaited arrival of California Chrome, who was backed off the van, because of his tendency to lunge when confronted with a ramp. He was then led into his first residence outside of California in trainer Tom Proctor’s barn. It was only appropriate that the first look people got of the Derby favorite was of his butt, because that’s pretty much all that his opponents would see five days later.

When the horse was tucked away in his stall safe and sound, Delgado, who had arrived with Alan the night before, finally could relax.

“Now that he’s here I can breathe,” he said. “It’s been a tense morning just waiting for him to get here. I haven’t slept. All the nerves and butterflies were starting to hit from the anxiety of waiting. Alan said to me, ‘You’re awful quiet, are you alright?’ I told him once I get on him tomorrow everything will settle down. The way he trains, you can feel the power in him. I’m just there to prevent him from going too fast. When he’s galloping, I have to look down to see if he changed leads because it does it so smoothly. I love working for Art and Alan, because they treat you like a member of the family. I’m just sad my brother didn’t get a chance to experience this. He’s become like Paul Feliciano (who rode Secretariat in his first two starts). But he’s happy for me. He keeps telling me, ‘Go on with him, little brother.’”

The following morning, around 6:45, Art headed to the trainer’s stand, while Alan drove to the frontside to meet California Chrome and school him in the paddock. The colt then took an easy jog once around. They followed the same routine the next few days, letting him open up in his gallops. But many observers and experts were not impressed with what they saw, feeling he wasn’t handling this track.

The field of 20 was reduced by one when Hoppertunity came down with a bruised foot following a half-mile work, adding to the numerous defections this year. That allowed Pablo Del Monte in the race, but the colt's connections declined, deciding to wait for the Preakness.

Derby morning dawned sunny and breezy, with most of the backstretch still abuzz over the performance by Untapable in the previous day’s Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). California Chrome went out for a jog, as did several other Derby starters, with Wicked Strong having a gallop. The happiest owners had to be the large West Point Thoroughbreds assemblage, who just got their improving colt Commanding Curve, third in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), in the race at the 11th hour, with the late injury to Ring Weekend, in whom they ironically owned part interest.

As the draw drew nearer, West Point president Terry Finley said, “You know what? We would be biting our nails right now, getting this close to the draw. But it’s bittersweet, having lost Ring Weekend.”

Finley and West Point’s executive vice president Jeff Lifson were both encouraged by their colt’s speed figures, which showed him on an improving pattern. Last year, Commanding Curve’s trainer, Dallas Stewart made it in the Derby at the last minute with Charles Fipke’s Golden Soul, and the colt came from far back to finish second at odds of 34-1. Commanding Curve would go off at 37-1. Could history repeat itself? Although Commanding Curve had been purchased as a 2-year-old for a modest $75,000, Finley said the colt had “a large heart and a very efficient heart. He’s not a horse who is going to take your breath away the way he moves, but he has ability, he’s improving, and he’s in the perfect set of hands.”

As Lifson said, “It’s starting to get real. I can tell by that Terry stare, which means he’s confident. All I pray for is just to be able to yell at the top of the stretch and think, ‘We can win this thing.’”

The central figure immediately before and during the walkover was actor Tony Danza, for whom Danza was named. Excited and bewildered by this new world into which he was thrust, Danza burst into a chorus of “Fugue For Tinhorns (‘I got the horse right here,’ from Guys and Dolls). “This is unbelievable,” he kept repeating, as the fans cheered him.

The field as a whole was well behaved, although California Chrome, who would go off as the 5-2 favorite, did begin to get a bit antsy walking over before eventually calming down. The only three other horses in single-digit odds were Wicked Strong at 6-1, Danza at 8-1, and Candy Boy, who took a ton of late money to be bet down from 16-1 to 9-1.

Leading California Chrome to the post was none other than the old warrior, Perfect Drift, a veteran of five Breeders' Cup Classics, who finished third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. The jockey who won that Derby? California Chrome's rider Victor Espinoza.

At the start, Wicked Strong stumbled slightly, as Calvin Borel on Ride On Curlin, made a sharp left-hand turn and headed right to the rail from post 19. Chitu and Uncle Sigh outran the other speed horses, followed closely by California Chrome, who broke cleanly and had a perfect position going into the first turn, where Intense Holiday was caught wide and Candy Boy had to take up sharply when bumped by Wicked Strong, costing him valuable position. Danza also encountered trouble when he was bumped by his own stablemate Vinceremos.
 
Down the backstretch, the opening quarter in a testing :23.04, Uncle Sigh established the lead, followed by Chitu, California Chrome, and Samraat on the far outside, sitting right off California Chrome’s flank. Danza had run into some traffic problems early on and was steered to the inside, while racing in midpack. The pace lightened a little with a half in :47.37 and three-quarters in 1:11.80. Around the far turn, Espinoza made his move on California Chrome and he moved up to challenge the leaders, with Samraat breathing down his neck, matching strides with the favorite. Intense Holiday was making a bold move right behind, with Danza on the move directly to his inside. Tapiture, Medal Count, and Dance With Fate all looked to have run in them as they began to make their moves.

Turning for home, California Chrome, as usual switched leads smoothly and right on cue and began to ease away from Samraat. Danza looked strong rallying up the inside in the two path when jockey Joe Bravo looked to his outside to see if the path was clear and steered his colt abruptly to the outside, with Wicked Strong looking for room right behind him. When Danza came out more sharply than anticipated, it forced Wicked Strong to alter his path to the inside. But most of the damage was to Medal Count who was splitting horses and had his run stopped cold.

Meanwhile, California Chrome was drawing off just as he had done in his previous four races, opening a five-length lead at the eighth pole under a hand ride. By now, the crowd was cheering wildly. Commanding Curve, who had been as far back as 18th, was forced eight wide and was flying past horses on the far outside under left-handed whipping from Shaun Bridgmohan. Espinoza began to ease up on California Chrome, who began flicking his ears around. At the wire, it was California Chrome by 1 3/4 lengths, with Commanding Curve finishing 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Danza, who proved his Arkansas Derby was no fluke with his powerful performance. For Dallas Stewart, history had indeed repeated itself. Wicked Strong, who had an eventful trip, just nosed out Samraat for fourth. The final time for the 1 1/4 miles was 2:03.66. Although the time and final fractions were slow, there did appear to be a pretty stiff wind against the horses in the stretch, and California Chrome was being eased late, flicking his ears around.

Just how freaky is this remarkable colt, who never regresses off his huge victories and who defies the experts? Churchill Downs outrider Greg Blasi, who has led back the last nine Kentucky Derby winners, said California Chrome “wouldn’t of blow out a match after the race.” He said he had never seen anything like it. It is apparent this is an extraordinarily fit horse who must have an exceptional heart and lung capacity, especially considering he’s been in steady training since April of last year and never had a break between 2 and 3.

“Usually the Derby winner is pretty tired and hot right after the race, but when I was bringing him back, he was prancing and dancing,” Blasi added. “He actually was hotter walking to the paddock than he was after the race. He didn’t look like a horse who had just run a mile and a quarter. Most horses will have that crease on their back after a race; we call it being quartered up. But he wasn’t quartered up at all. I have to say, he left an impression on me. It’s a tribute to the trainer that he wasn’t even tired after the race.

“The first day he galloped, he was bunny hopping around there and seemed stiff legged. I said, ‘This is our favorite for the Derby?’ But it was probably just the new surroundings, because the next day he did fine with everything and didn’t look like the same horse. All I know is that I was very impressed with him after the race. Racing really needs a horse like this. If any horse can sweep the Triple Crown, he’s the one.”

Even a skeptic like Dale Romans, trainer of Medal Count, is now a believer. “I didn’t think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race and I was very, very wrong,” he said. “Whether the crop is a good crop or not, that’s a special horse. I was wrong. I was a very big skeptic; I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I didn’t think he fit the profile to win the Derby. I’m very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran. Now he has a new fan.”

So, Racing has itself a much-needed hero, a strikingly handsome golden chestnut surrounded by popular and likeable people, who can only enhance the image of the sport.

As Alan Sherman’s childhood friend Bobby Harkins said, “This is one of those things you’ll appreciate more and more as time goes by.”

Among those sharing in the victory was Larry Williams who not only bred and raced Lucky Pulpit, he also owns Tamarando, who by taking it on the chin in the Cal Cup Derby, showed the racing world that a new star had emerged.

Alan, now composed, leaned against the railing of the barn while his father was celebrating at the Kentucky Derby Museum and was able to reflect what had just happened.

“It’s been such an emotional day,” he said. “Right from the start everything starts going through your head, and all you’re thinking is, ‘Please just let him have a good trip.’ I’m just so happy for my father. He doesn’t feel like he’s above anybody. If anybody asks him for help he helps them. Every year the 2-year-olds come in and you hope. But to have something like this is beyond anything you can hope for. He just blossomed at 3 and grew up and turned into a man.”

Perhaps he should have said THE man. One of his clients stopped by and explained why he didn’t come over to him after the race, “I could see you were falling apart like a cheap suitcase, and it wouldn’t have helped if I went over and bawled with you,” he said.

Art said the following morning he heard Santa Anita and Los Alamitos erupted when he won and that both places “went bananas. I’m glad for everyone in California. As I said, he’s a rock star.”

Yes, it was truly a time for California Dreamin.’ For Steve Coburn, his dream had become a prophecy; the ultimate fairy tale. For Art Sherman, his dream had been guided by fate and the memory of Swaps and sleeping in the straw next to the horse on a cross-country train ride nearly six decades ago. For Alan Sherman, it was a dream come true for his father and a lifetime of dedication to the sport. For Victor Espinoza, it was reliving and surpassing the magic he felt winning the Derby in 2002 on War Emblem after 12 years out of the national spotlight. And for William Delgado, it was fate being in California and being asked to ride a chestnut Cal-bred just before leaving for Maryland and the dream he is now living, not only for himself, but his brother, who could only watch from the sidelines, wondering ‘what if.’

And while on the subject of fate, California’s Chrome’s broodmare sire Not For Love’s third dam is Intriguing, a daughter of Swaps. By being inbred to Intriguing through the great filly Numbered Account, it means that California Chrome is inbred to Swaps.

Art Sherman summed up the day and the experience best when he said, “I think of all my friends who have died who are watching, and they’re all saying, ‘We wish you the best of luck, Art.’ I’m so thankful that I’m here. I have a lot of friends at the racetrack and I’ve been around a long time. But I’m still the same old Art Sherman…except I won the Kentucky Derby.”


Thanks to Alex Cutadean, formerly Stable Boy, for catching California Chrome flying down the stretch right between me and Lenny Shulman



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