He stopped by the grave of Swaps this week, tucked into a garden at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and said a little prayer in the midst of the chaos.
"Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into 'Chrome—I'll be the happiest guy in the world."
Maybe California Chrome felt the needed boost of Art Sherman's old-time mount in the final furlong of the longest race of his life, or maybe he got there on heart and class alone. But when the flashy young chestnut crossed the Churchill Downs finish line to the roar of a modern crowd, you liked to think it was his trainer's old-school style, his owners' rugged individualism, and the talent of a veteran jockey that powered him home.
The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was won May 3 by just the fourth California-bred in history, a modestly bred colt with the speed and staying power of a throwback. Art Sherman, at 77, became the oldest trainer in history to saddle a victor in racing's hallowed run—his first trip with a Derby winner since coming as Swaps' exercise rider in 1955. Alan Sherman, the trainer's dedicated assistant and younger son, cried tears of joy on the way to the winner's circle. The colt's breeders, who kept him despite the temptation to sell, passed out roses and spoke of the glory of following dreams.
Before California Chrome was born, Steve Coburn, a working man's man with a room-filling presence and a straight-shooting mind, dreamt of a colt—a chestnut with a white blaze who was going to win the Derby for the Nevada resident and his California-based parner, Perry Martin. Then California Chrome was born.
When Coburn shared that information with a room full of reporters in the first pre-race media conference held at Churchill earlier this week, some viewed him with barely veiled skepticism. Others were downright offended, chalking it up to his status as a newbie to the Derby game. They found him cocky, they said. Couldn't he see? There were questions upon questions for his West Coast contender.
California Chrome answered them resoundingly.
""I've said it a hundred times or a thousand times; you got a dream, if you're willing to ride the dream out, they will come true for you," said Coburn. "We're living proof of it, my partner and I."
Prior to California Chrome, horses owned together by just Steve Coburn and Perry Martin were 0-3-2 from 10 starts. California Chrome, bred by the partners from $2,500 stallion Lucky Pulpit out of the $8,000 mare Love the Chase, has a 7-1-0 record from 11 outings with earnings of $2.5 million. He has soared through his past five races by a combined 26 lengths.
In the midst of a tumultuous season, the feel-good story and down-to-earth connections of California Chrome gave a much-needed boost to racing—and figures to carry on down the line to Baltimore, where the second leg of the Triple Crown series awaits.
"I said, 'When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown,'" Coburn said. "I told people this colt will go down in history. When he wins the Triple Crown, he will be the first California-bred to ever win a Triple Crown. That's where we're going."
Before, people might have found that presumptuous. After California Chrome's win today, you start to think that maybe—just maybe—it might finally happen.