Racing at Its Best - By Eric Mitchell

Putting the caring horsemen behind Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner California Chrome on the world’s stage could not have come at a better time for Thoroughbred racing.

To be sure, racing has been taking its lumps lately. Video from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleging abuse, finger-pointing among industry organizations over medication rules, and general turmoil over the sport’s public image dominated the national conversation leading up to the Derby. Getting lost in the cacophony have been the stories of the thousands of owners, trainers, jockeys, and grooms who are doing right by the horses in their care every day.

Gratefully the voices of the caring and the faithful were amplified on Derby Day.

Here are owner/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who turned down $6 million for a 51% interest in a horse produced out of an $8,000 mare and bred on a $2,500 stud fee. The partners found it extraordinarily easy to walk away from the windfall.

“I saw this baby the day after he was born,” Coburn said following the Derby. “To watch this colt grow and develop the mind he has, and run because he loves to run and loves the competition. It was not tough to say ‘No.’ We knew within our souls what kind of horse we had because we have seen him grow up. We’ve seen him achieve these things. He has all that heart, and we knew we had something special from day one.”

Then there is 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who has more than paid his dues in the tough way of life that he loves. Sherman knows no other way than to keep the horses under his care foremost in his mind.

After California Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by 5 1/4 lengths, Sherman said he couldn’t sleep.

“They told me the horse pulled up good and he was doing fine, but I wanted to be sure,” he said. Sherman went to the barn to check the son of Lucky Pulpit’s knees and ankles...at 2 o’clock the next morning.

In the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Sherman also heard some second-guessing regarding his training regimen for the Derby—keeping the colt at his home track of Los Alamitos for his final work instead of shipping earlier to acclimate to Churchill Downs and not working the colt far enough before the race. Sherman made it clear what drives his decisions.

“I’ve been on many a horse, and you don’t train every horse the same way,” said Sherman, a former jockey. “You have to let the horse tell you want he needs to do.”

Finally, jockey Victor Espinoza, who after 22 years of race riding, still marvels at the intelligence of Thoroughbreds and believes every horse and every race offers him a chance to learn something new.

“I am always amazed at how talented horses are; you teach them things and they learn so quickly,” Espinoza said. “I am really curious about what the horses are thinking.”

Based in Southern California, Espinoza first spotted California Chrome at Del Mar last summer and instantly recognized a talented horse.

“I really liked the look of his head and the way he is built,” Espinoza said. “But you never think you’ll get the chance to ride him.”

When Espinoza got the call from his agent that he had the mount in the King Glorious Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park, the rider knew they’d take the race. The pair wound up winning that stakes and three more. After the Santa Anita Derby, Espinoza also had trouble sleeping.

“I could not sleep for a couple of days,” he said. “I was really, really looking forward to things for this horse. It motivated me to work harder.”

A recent visit with the children at the City of Hope cancer center in Los Angeles also has motivated Espinoza, who pledged to donate a portion of his Triple Crown earnings to the center.

“I want to make a change for those kids that don’t have this life we have,” said an emotional Espinoza after the Derby. “It is heartbreaking. I want to have more earnings for the kids at City of Hope.”

These are the stories Thoroughbred racing should be sharing, and the people it should be promoting. No marketing firm anywhere could convincingly reproduce the genuine emotion and heartfelt gratitude Coburn expressed to his partner, to his family, and to his team following the Derby.

“This has been a long…hard…road, but we’ve been blessed with this colt and with a trainer that took the time, took the patience, and put the colt on the path we’d written out for him,” Coburn said.

Thoroughbred racing is blessed, too, to have people like these who bring so much heart, soul, and integrity to the game. They truly show the sport at its best.

12 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Stones

Great column, Eric.  It is refreshing to see a small, honest outfit come out on top.  Add to that Victor's charitable decision, something that has been done quietly (first I've read of it, anyway) and his obvious love and appreciation for CC and you can't find any tarnish on that shiny trophy.

Cal Chrome doesn't need to win the Triple Crown to hold a special spot on my all-time favorites list.  I've enjoyed this ride so much because there hasn't been a reason not to!

06 May 2014 5:11 PM
Judy G ~ CA

Love every single person associated with CALIFORNIA CHROME. Heaven sent for sure!

06 May 2014 7:00 PM
Barthart

What a nice tribute to the California Chrome team!! You are so right that these are the kind of people horse racing needs. I will be pulling for Chrome with all my strength when he runs in the Preakness--he was my pick for the Derby before he was on everyone's mind. Being from California and looking so much like the be-all-end-all horse of my lifetime (bright chestnut with chrome!), I couldn't help but root for him. Best of luck to all of them! Keep safe!!!

06 May 2014 7:31 PM
DianaP

Eric you are so right thank you

06 May 2014 10:11 PM
Delrene

Bravo!  Well done California Chrome and all your people that care for you in such a big way.  Victor is especially endearing with his smile and big heart.  

06 May 2014 10:20 PM
Anne from Paramount

There should be many comments here for such a positive column, all of it accurate. Unfortunately if it were of a negative nature, there would be all kinds of debates going on. This was a GREAT Derby, producing smiles and delight everywhere!  Come on everyone: SMILE! Thumbs UP! Congratulations to all of the connections and especially to California Chrome!

06 May 2014 11:16 PM
AngelaInAbilene

It is so gratifying to see these folks with a Kentucky Derby winner and the glorious horse that is California Chrome.  They have proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what I've always known.  A GREAT horse can come from ANYWHERE!  If you BELIEVE in your horse, put him FIRST and give him all the time he needs, never doubt that he will reward you.  California Chrome has known since he was born that his people thought he hung the moon.  Believe me, it makes a difference.  

07 May 2014 11:55 AM
Mike Relva

Great writing Eric and agree with your points.

07 May 2014 2:26 PM
Davids

Eric, an excellent piece emphasising that, as much as breeding/racing is reliant on healthy figures at the sales, it is the interlocking synergy of the racing community's love of the thoroughbred, over centuries, that makes racing the wonderful spectacle it can be.

As much as the recent PETA video has people rightfully recoiling against some in the racing community, the 'fairy tale' saga of California Chrome and his connections winning the Kentucky Derby shines like a golden dream of what can be achieved the right way.

07 May 2014 6:26 PM
JohnB

Eric, What's going on here?  Why did NBC leave out the Kentucky Derby Winner's Circle presentation?

12 May 2014 2:45 PM
moonrise

@Stones

"Cal Chrome doesn't need to win the Triple Crown to hold a special spot on my all-time favorites list.  I've enjoyed this ride so much because there hasn't been a reason not to!"

Could not say it better so I just quoted it. Thank you!

13 May 2014 1:46 PM
Agnes

Your column was terrific - such a pleasure to read of the happiness of Cal Chrome's people and to know that they're decent and love their horse.  You put into words what all of us are feeling

13 May 2014 9:47 PM

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