California Chrome
California Chrome

It’s hard to believe that the Higher Power would bother to manipulate the outcome of something so trivial as a sporting event, but California Chrome’s victory in the Kentucky Derby reeks of divine intervention.

He/She/It seems to occasionally delight in seeing the meek inherit the earth, a tiny corner of it anyway, such as, on Saturday, the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

The king of Derby 140, California Chrome, is a lowborn Left Coast critter owned by a pair of regular Joes: Steve Coburn, a factory worker from Topaz Lake, Nev., and Perry Martin, an engineer from Yuba City, Calif. They call themselves the Dumb Ass Partners because a groom said that only a dim-witted donkey would buy Love the Chase, the dreadful race horse who became Chrome’s mom.

Last year’s Derby winner, Orb, was owned by a scion of the Carnegie family and begotten of a million-dollar mare and a top Kentucky stallion that commands $85,000 per assignation.

Love the Chase cost $8,000. Her tryst with Lucky Pulpit cost $2,500.

Orb was born at Claiborne Farm, a famous cradle of thoroughbred champions in Paris, Ky.

California Chrome was born on a cattle ranch in Coalinga, Calif.

Orb was trained by a Hall of Famer, Shug McGaughey.

Chrome is trained by a ham-and-egger, 77-year-old Art Sherman.

Horse racing is a plutocracy in the breeding shed and sales rings, but it’s a meritocracy on the track. Eight of the 19 colts entered Saturday fetched $100,000 or more at auction, but a bargain basement homebred was the unequivocal 5-2 favorite. A deserving one too. California Chrome had won four consecutive races by such wide margins that if the young animals were playing tee ball, they’d have invoked the Mercy Rule.

At the top of the homestretch, nearly 165,000 roaring drunks saw California Chrome kick clear of the field with a burst of acceleration that put him five lengths ahead with 200 yards to go. No one noticed at the time, but Chrome was in the middle of one of the slowest stretch runs in recent Derby history – a final ¼-mile in 26.21 seconds.

By all rights, a fast-closing adversary should have mowed him down.

Fate wouldn’t allow it.

Danza, the 9-1 third choice, was shuffled back to 12th place in the early stampede, and in deep stretch had to leap sideways to avoid running up the heels of a spent rival. He did well to finish third, beaten three lengths.

Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second choice, stumbled at the break, altered course in midstretch to avoid a slowpoke and had to weave through traffic just to finish fourth.

Dance With Fate was jostled leaving the gate, shut off by Wicked Strong on the backstretch and forced to swing wide to find running room down the lane. He finished sixth.

Ride On Curlin, discovering that Calvin Borel’s rail-skimming magic is not infallible, ran headlong into a crowd and, with 3/16 of a mile to run, had to execute an abrupt end sweep around the field.

derbyMedal Count was making a stubborn charge in deep stretch when Danza’s sudden lane change forced him to slam on the brakes. He finished eighth, less than a length behind Ride On Curlin.

Only Commanding Curve got a clean run at the favorite, but by the time he got up a full head of steam, the winner was coasting to the wire.

Nobody was catching California Chrome on Saturday. He was quick enough to avoid traffic, poised enough to let others exhaust themselves fighting for the early lead and blessed enough to have obstacles appear in the path of every pursuer.

California Chrome’s winning time of 2:03.66 seconds was the slowest over a fast track in 40 years. But he earned every petal of the 554 red roses that were draped across his shoulders at the end.

Only one of the Dumb Ass Partners came to the winner’s press conference, Steve Coburn, the factory worker, a colorful, plainspoken man. He talked about the blood, sweat, money and dreams that he and Martin had invested in the russet-colored colt that runs faster than his DNA ought to allow.

Two months ago, a rich guy offered $6 million for a 51-percent share of California Chrome.

“The answer,” Coburn said, “wasn’t just no. It was hell no.”

Part of the reason DAP Racing rejected the offer was to keep California Chrome from being wrenched away from Sherman, a kind old man who had waited all his life for a horse like this. Coburn said it pleased him greatly to see Sherman grab the brass ring and watch it turn to gold.

Coburn never doubted that it would. California Chrome was foaled on Feb. 18, the birthday of Coburn’s sister, Brenda, who died of cancer at age 36.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Sherman said. “You’ve got somebody upstairs watching you very well.”

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Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.

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