From the time he was a foal at Harris Farms in California's Central Valley, California Chrome made sure people noticed him. With his flashy markings, the chestnut colt was easy to spot, but he also seemed to seek out attention—in a good way.
In spite of a shaky beginning, the likely favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was easy to remember for the people who put him on his original path to the races. And everyone you speak with at the full-service breeding establishment near Coalinga—whether it's farm veterinarian Dr. Jeanne Bowers-Lepore, horse division general manager Dave McGlothlin, trainer Per Antonsen, or owner John Harris himself—the recollection is entirely positive.
"He was a little bit under the radar that way," said Bowers-Lepore, who has been taking care of the horses at Harris Farms since 1992. "He never gave us much trouble, he was always good about things like taking medication or worming. He didn't do terrible things. He was always the type who liked to greet you, look you in the eye."
California often sends horses to the Derby, but hasn't had a homegrown winner since Decidedly in 1962. That makes California Chrome, a son of fast-rising stallion Lucky Pulpit (who stands at Harris Farms for his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Larry D. Williams) extra special to the state's breeders and owners.
"We're absolutely excited about the Derby," said McGlothlin. "The entire California racing industry is rooting for him."
"My fingers are so, so crossed," said Bowers-Lepore.
Harris Farms has a history of delivering and developing talented foals and the green and white Harris silks have had much success in California racing. Many others not bred by Harris and his partners also have gotten their starts there. Tiznow , for instance, the only horse to win back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics (gr. I), was born and raised at Harris, but was a late developer and missed the Triple Crown races.
Located in the heart of California's Central Valley about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the ranch has produced two prior Derby starters: Rousing Sermon, who was eighth in 2012 for the Williamses, and Jamaican Rum, sixth in 2001 for Southern Nevada Racing Stables. But the farm has never had a Coalinga-born colt that's attracted the attention of California Chrome.
California Chrome's owners and first-time breeders—Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, Calif., and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev.—swear they knew the colt was something special the moment they saw him. He was less than 24 hours old and they were referring to him as their Derby horse.
It's something the Harris folks hear often from newcomers to the business. "You don't want to pour cold water on their dreams," said Harris, who ironically has been trying for decades to breed a Derby starter. "But they were very optimistic from the start about their colt. He did everything right (while at Harris Farms). But there was nothing to indicate he would turn out to be like this."
The most special thing about the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner as a youngster? He never got sick, never got hurt, never did anything bad. First to the feed tub and first to the fence, the young colt got along well with his fellow pasture mates and liked to outrun them. And he enjoyed interaction with his people. Although he wasn't the biggest colt in the pasture, you could say he was the brightest.
He also was a people horse from day one.
That affinity for people, much commented on during his current run of success with trainer Art Sherman, probably stems from his earliest imprinting, says Bowers-Lepore. It was the result of a difficult start in life, she said. His dam, the Not For Love mare Love the Chase, suffered life-threatening complications in delivery of the bigger-than-average 137-pound baby, her first foal on Feb. 18, 2011.
"She had us worried," Bowers-Lepore said. "She had lacerated her uterus in giving birth and she bled pretty badly. We didn't know that at the time, of course, and we were concerned that she had ruptured an artery. When that happens, they often bleed out so fast they die."
Love the Chase needed quite a bit of treatment over several weeks, but she responded. As her wound healed, she spent more than a month stall-bound.
While his mother recuperated, the foal nicknamed "Junior" was always at her side, confined to a stall with only a short run to exercise in. Love the Chase—never one to seek out attention—wasn't in a mood for people, but Junior soaked up the strokes.
"She responded okay to treatment," Bowers-Lepore said of Love the Chase. "But most importantly, she didn't reject him. Sometimes, with a young mare, something like this happens and they will reject the foal."
He got used to the attention of other vets and handlers, always being touched, always watching and listening; he learned to anticipate what people wanted him to do.
"I think it was from that experience that he enjoys people," she said.
It's interesting to contemplate that were it not for the fact that Love the Chase failed to conceive in her first try at pregnancy, California Chrome might not ever have been born. As has been well-chronicled, she wasn't much of a runner and was purchased for $8,000 off the track in 2009 by the Martins and Perrys, who previously owned 5% of her through a Blinkers On racing syndicate.
Redattore was their first choice as a sire, but when she didn't take the first time, they could not take her back to him because he had moved to Brazil. The owners then opted the following year for Lucky Pulpit, and the resulting foal became California Chrome. After a year off to fully recover from her injury, Love the Chase has been bred back twice more to the popular son of Pulpit, producing two fillies.
And after the close call with his dam, California Chrome was quickly on his way. McGlothlin, the farm manager, said he was easy to spot in the field with some of the other weanlings on the farm.
"He was always very flashy," he said. "Because the mare was injured he wasn't allowed to go out in the field with the others. But once he was able to, he was always a little bit of a character; he had a little bit of an edge."
After weaning, California Chrome was sent to the River Ranch facility, a 140-acre site with much grassy pastureland about an hour's drive from the main horse farm where he and other yearlings are sent. It was there that California Chrome got most of his early socialization.
Craig Allen, assistant manager at River Ranch, remembered him well as part of a five-horse grouping selected by size and temperament. A couple of others in his band have also found success on the track including Well Measured, most recently third in the April 5 Echo Eddie Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Allen said Chrome got along well with his mates. "He wasn't one of the colts that was in a fight every day. He was certainly alpha enough that he got the feed tub second after the babysitter (an older horse that helps keep the youngsters calm).
"He was one of the leaders of the pasture but he didn't get a lot of boxer's cuts (from kicks or other skirmishes)," Allen said. "He was always very manageable. Every horse that age is going to try you—they're teenagers. But once you let him know (who's boss), he understood and he settled down.
"I think part of his personality comes from being touched every day. That's a big part of our program here, human contact. He was always looking forward to seeing us. He was the first to greet us when we approached; it was like he was asking, 'Are you here to see me?' "
After several months at River Ranch, he was returned to the main farm to begin training under Antonsen. The Denmark native has been in charge of that aspect of young horse development for the past 33 years. He also had fond memories of California Chrome.
"He was always a great horse to work with, a pleasure to work with," Antonsen recalled. "He possessed a long stride and he was very precocious. He loved training and he was just a natural athlete. But you never know how good they're going to turn out to be. There are so many factors.
"I've had some good ones, going back to Tiznow," he noted. "There was no way of telling that he (California Chrome) would be this special. But he never missed a day of training. That's amazing for a young horse. They are always getting sniffles or a snotty nose, a cough, or hurting their shins. I remember he used to bite a little bit, but nothing serious, just a little nippy. And he always ate up all his food.
"He was not a huge horse, a little on the narrow side. He did not have a big rear end but he doesn't seem to need one. He took to racing naturally, learned how to switch leads very quickly; he was very smart and he seemed to take everything in stride."
Watching California Chrome progress along the Derby trail has been amazing, he said.
"It's very gratifying," Antonsen said. "We've been breeding horses for many, many years here, and we've had some good ones. But we've never gotten one to the Kentucky Derby."
Dr. Bowers-Lepore said she recalled Antonsen telling the Martins and the Coburns, 'You are going to have a lot of fun with that horse.' I don't know if he thought they'd be having this kind of fun, though."