The 2014 Kentucky Derby was about dreams and fate, an improbable hero from humble parentage, memories of Derbys long ago, and a favorite owned and trained by underdogs. In short, it was about life and its quirky twists and turns that lead us to places envisioned only in dreams and guided only by fate.
Thoroughbred racing was once dubbed The Sport of Kings. Well, there are no more kings and we are trying desperately to convince the world we are still a sport. There are only mere fragments left of past dynasties, as we witnessed in last year’s Derby. For the most part, the nobility that was once racing has morphed into a sport dominated by “dumb ass partners.” Working stiffs Steve Coburn and Perry Martin are the first to admit it by branding themselves as such.
The California breeding industry has for years been considered by the elitists as the other side of the tracks, where obscurely bred horses grow up, race, and die in relative anonymity. A colt by a $2,500 stallion, out of an $8,000 claiming mare, owned by a couple of burly guys from Topaz Lake, Nevada, and Yuba City, Calif. who actually get up at the crack of dawn and go to work, fits right into the landscape that is California breeding.
So, what happens when these two good ‘ol boys with their humble 3-year-old are offered $6 million for majority interest in their colt? They say “No?” Are you kidding? Then they are offered close to double that several weeks later and this time they say, “Hell, no?”
That escalates the pursuit of a dream to a new “dumb ass” level.
But there are those rare occasions in life when money becomes secondary, as insane as it may seem to others and even to ourselves as we make decisions that defy all rationality. We who love this sport and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it realize that horses are embedded in our soul from childhood, whether through equine heroes such as The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, and even TV stars Trigger, Silver, and Mister Ed.
We as kids hop aboard our rocking horse and continue to build up speed until we feel as if we are airborne. We no longer are sitting atop a piece of wood, but atop Secretariat or Seattle Slew. Imagine at that point if someone approached you and asked what you would pay to have that rocking horse come alive and be transformed into Big Red or Slew. And you owned him.
Coburn and Martin started off with a cheap rocking horse and saw it come to life, just as Coburn had envisioned in his dream, descrbing the unborn foal to his wife right down to his color, white blaze, and four white ankles. When they went to see the newborn foal, Coburn's wife walked over to the stall, took a look inside, and told her husband to come take a look. "There's your dream," she said.
It hadn't been an easy birth for his dam Love the Chase. 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. As a result, the foal wasn't able to be out with the others to socialize and run around, so he became more focused on people than he was on horses and developed an amiable personality. He never lost that and was always a pleasure to be around and work with.
Martin and Coburn's golden steed, who they named California Chrome, began to get faster and faster, and Coburn and Martin found themselves back on that rocking horse, feeling that speed and that rush of adrenaline. It built to such a frantic pace they could no longer see dollar signs, only the Twin Spires beckoning in the distance, and even that elusive Triple Crown trophy that has become tarnished by years of sitting in storage. Coburn felt California Chrome was invincible, truly believing his deceased sister was the colt's guardian angel, guiding him every step of his journey.
With each race, their rocking horse kept building up speed. Even those who have never had a rocking horse surely have ridden a flashy, blazed face horse on a carousel, its eyes with that wild look to them and mouth wide open. With all the horses to choose from, when you hopped aboard yours, didn’t you feel as if it were your horse, chosen just for you?
Coburn must have felt that at some point in his childhood, and he was able to relate to it now, as he talked about how special it was to see that brass ring on the merry-go-round turn to gold and Art Sherman reaching out and grabbing it.
He concluded by saying with the utmost gratitude, “God bless you, Art, for doing what you’ve done with this horse.”
Sometimes, even dreams need a little outside help, and Sherman was living his own dream, returning to Churchill Downs nearly 60 years after accompanying the great Swaps by train to capture the roses. Whether feeling that rush as an 18-year-old exercise rider or as the oldest trainer at age 77 to win the Derby, you never lose that child in you when it comes to horses. You always reach out for that brass ring, because at the other end could be a Swaps or a California Chrome. And that is why Sherman, after arriving in Kentucky, went to visit the grave of his beloved Swaps located behind the Kentucky Derby Museum and said a little prayer. What he prayed for was that California Chrome could become another Swaps. A few days later on the first Saturday in May, Sherman found his Swaps.
And what is more important than sharing dreams with those you love. Perry Martin stood by the rail following the Kentucky Derby waiting for his 83-year-old mother, Catherine, and then helped her into a wheel chair. He walked behind her as she was wheeled across the track to the winner's circle, trying hard to fight 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."
Many frowned upon California Chrome’s humble lineage. But Coburn, especially, could see that it was not about names and race records. The blood of the Thoroughbred is infused with speed and stamina and courage, and a wild spirit not seen in any other breed. That blood goes back a number of generations, and on rare occasions, as is the case with California Chrome, it all flows into one special place, like tributaries into a mighty river. A closer look actually shows the blood of classic champions in America and Europe coursing through his veins.
A lot has been made of California Chrome’s slow time and closing fractions. Time is perhaps the most relative aspect of racing, because it is based on so many variables, such as the headwind in this year’s Derby. Time also has a way of fading into some deep corridor of our mind as a horse goes on to further accomplishments. Alysheba and his crop were considered slow and inferior after a 2:03 2/5 clocking in the Derby (only a fifth faster than California Chrome) and a final half in :51 2/5 (same as California Chrome). That is now considered one of the great 3-year-old crops of all time and you can learn more about Alysheba on his plaque in the Hall of Fame. Also up on that wall is Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who came home his last half in the Derby in :51 3/5. Spectacular Bid, who holds the world record for 1 1/4 miles, ran his Derby in 2:02 4/5, with a final half in :50. Canonero II ran his Derby in 2:03 1/5 and everyone was convinced he was nothing more than a slow plodder. Two weeks later he ran the fastest Preakness in history.
The time of one race is not a true indicator of a horse’s ability. A horse is often measured by what is inside him. We have the ability to scan a horse’s heart to get an idea how it might assist performance in a physiological way and we can attempt to discover qualities about a horse such as lung capacity. But when dealing with an animal that has taken on mythical qualities over the centuries and has bonded with humans in an almost spiritual manner, one can easily resist scientific explanation and just believe that once in great while a horse like California Chrome can come along from seemingly humble beginnings to become the ragamuffin who would be king.
No one has placed any crowns on California Chrome’s head just yet, and it is still too early to know whether he will be sitting atop the throne. But for now, he has entered a place where few before him have ventured – into our imagination. The storybook is already being written. No one knows what the upcoming chapters will bring, but even now it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Romantics and poets have a way of creating their own endings and making people feel and envision the beauty they are trying to portray with their words.
And is there any poetry more soothing to the soul than the image of a Thoroughbred in action, whether it be made of flesh and bone or a piece of wood? Coburn and Martin may look like two hulking cowboys who rolled the dice on a dream, but in reality they are just like us, or at least who we used to be – kids on a rocking horse going faster and faster and enjoying the ride of their lives.