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 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.

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