Photostory: Behind California Chrome on the road to the Triple Crown

A Southern California horse from humble beginnings is on the verge of making horse racing history. California Chrome, the 3-year-old horse who currently trains at Los Alamitos Race Course, is one win away from the Triple Crown, horse racing’s most storied set of races which has not been won for 36 years.

He won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the first two jewels in the Crown, in commanding fashion. In the four races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, he won by more than 25 lengths. On June 7, he will race for history at the Belmont Stakes in New York, the final race of the Triple Crown.

According to some horse racing experts, Chrome has far outperformed his pedigree. Bred in California from an $8,000 claiming mare and a $2,500 stud fee, he has taken the world by storm.

His owners, Steve and Carolyn Coburn, and Perry and Denise Martin, formed a partnership to breed their first horse. After buying the mare for $8,000 someone told them they were “dumb asses” to buy her. The men shook hands and called themselves “Dumb Ass Partners”

They sought out expert trainers and found 77-year-old Art Sherman and his son Alan here in Southern California. A few weeks ago, Sherman became the oldest winning trainer in Kentucky Derby history and had last been to the Derby in 1955 as an exercise rider for the legendary horse, Swaps. “He’s my Swaps,” said Sherman one early morning at Los Alamitos Race Course, where the horse is training.

Shortly after becoming California Chrome’s trainer, Sherman received an email outlining the road to the Derby and every race he would need to win. He found it somewhat unbelievable, but now sees that it has all come true as the owners planned. A California-bred horse had not won the Kentucky Derby since 1962.

Co-owner Steve Coburn explained that he had a dream, before California Chrome was born, about what he was going to look like and what he would do. His dream is coming true.

“When I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, Carolyn, this horse is going to do something big. I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to stay in the game to make sure this colt gets to be the best that he can be,” Coburn said.

Coburn’s commitment to the Southern Californian colt paid off.

“I’ve been a firm believer in that ever since, and he’s not proven me wrong. This is a nice horse. He loves people. He loves what he does, and that’s why he’s America’s horse,” Coburn said. “In my opinion, this horse, what he’s doing for two guys that work their butts off every day just to put beans and bacon on the table, this horse has given everybody else out there the incentive to say, you know what? We can do it too. We just hope this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win.”

Shortly after the San Felipe Stakes race in March, the partners were offered $6 million for a 51 percent ownership in the horse which likely would have meant changing trainers. But their dream was not for sale. Coburn’s answer? Not only no, but “hell no.”

“The offer we got for this horse was from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work,” Coburn said. “And to me that was kind of an insult. Somebody who’s got that much money who thinks they can step in and buy people who have worked so hard to get to this point, to me that was a slap in the face.”

This quest has been a thrill for all of California Chrome’s connections including exercise rider Willie Delgado.

“This is everybody’s dream, you know? He’s an amazing horse. I got lucky,” Delgado said. “You come into the track with a dream that someday, somehow you’ll get to the Derby whether you’re a jockey, hotwalker, groom, trainer, owner, whatever and for me, to get out there and not only get on this horse, have them (the trainers) trust me with this horse and bring me on this amazing dream. Just thinking about it now I’m getting a knot in my throat.”

Back in early April, a reporter asked Sherman what was on his bucket list of things to do. He lightheartedly answered, “Winning the Triple Crown.” A week from Saturday, his wish just might come true.

Amy Gaskin has been a staff photographer and contributor to The Corsair for several semesters. Her work has won numerous awards, including Student Photographer of the Year (PPAGLA) (twice), and several first place awards in State Competitions (CCMA and JACC). Her photographs have been selected by curators of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the American Photographic Artists exhibitions. In addition to The Corsair, her images have been published by The Washington Post, LA Weekly, and The Guardian newspapers.

She began covering horse racing in 2013 and chose a horse and trainer to feature who, at the time, were not well-known. That horse was California Chrome, who has since gone on to make history.