Sunday, May 04, 2014

Horse Racing Also Wins Big at the Derby

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, May 4, 2014—The greatest thing about loving this game, the greatest thing about the Kentucky Derby, is that sometimes even when you lose trying to beat the favorite, you feel like a winner.

A couple of “dumbasses” put on quite a show at Churchill Downs on Saturday, as did the first race horse they ever owned. California Chrome got there in 2:03.66, the slowest time since Cannonade precisely four decades ago. But that’s for another day.

In Derby 140, there were rough trips and good trips and impossible trips, but there always are in 19-horse fields. But that story can wait, too, that’s a second-day riff; pre-Preakness, pre-Belmont Stakes.

I was at Churchill Downs on 18 occasions during the first week in May and admit that the feeling of being there live is irreplaceably special, especially when they play, as the jockeys put it, “that song.”

But the truth is that television captures the scene better, pictures worth thousands of words.

American horse racing fanatics have read or heard all the stories about the Coburns and Perrys and their dreams. The first time I did was on a cell phone speaker while eating a Chicago-style polish sausage at Hot Dog Heaven in Ft. Lauderdale.

It was there I first heard Coburn’s story on an NTRA conference call. It was quite a yarn he spun that afternoon. It included the story of his sister whose young life was tragically taken by disease at age 36, which Coburn saw as part of California Chrome’s destiny.

For it was 36 years ago when thoroughbred racing last celebrated a Triple Crown winner, said yesterday’s birthday boy, whose horse is now part of Derby lore. Coburn almost convinced me this winter. But the convincing would have to wait 'til Derby day.

It was fated, as was Coburn’s meeting with partner Perry Martin, the less loquacious “dumbass,” who together bought Love The Chase when a previous racing partnership was dissolved upon the mare’s retirement.

The two men formed a new relationship and called it, “Dumbass Partners,” or “DAP,” the name contributed courtesy of a groom who thought that “anyone who decides to buy [Love The Chase] is a dumbass.”

Not to be too hard on the groom, but he didn’t know anything about Coburn’s fate-ridden journey, who, with his partner can now rename the mare Love The Triple Crown Chase.

But even if that quest fails, for this Smarty Jones kind of racehorse the journey has begun, an oldest trainer’s dream realized in the Churchill Downs winners’ circle ceremonies.

Art Sherman is 77. In Triple Crown terms, ’77 was Seattle Slew’s year. California Chrome isn’t undefeated at this stage, but he is 5-for-5 beneath Victor Espinoza, who was as brilliant as his Derby mount.

Espinoza didn’t rattle when caught between speed horses going into the first turn, andnd neither did he rattle on the second turn when Samraat ranged up alongside four abreast.

“There was one inside, one outside. I could see everybody coming outside and my heart went 100 miles an hour,” he would say about the first-turn part of his journey. And when he got California Chrome out in the clear on the backside, it was “what a relief, I could let him stretch his legs.”

At a point where a lesser animal might have begun to wilt, horse and rider appeared relaxed despite having to race between horses. They both were as cool as cucumber slices on a Vienna Beef hotdog. At least that’s the way it appeared on TV.

California Chrome is a cool dude. First of all, he’s a chestnut, not the red kind like the ’73 Triple Crown winner but one that's copper-penny shiny like golden chrome. And there are those white stockings, too.

He has a stall presence, aware of his surroundings, curious but relaxed, in control. He likes people and was very playful, nipping at Johnny Weir who took the “lucky cookies” they were feeding from Tara Lipinski’s hand because “he’s had enough, he has to race tomorrow.”

California Chrome might not have gotten to the Derby finish line in fast time, like he did at Santa Anita, and his winning margin wasn’t nearly as great. But he won, and he won with authority once his closest rival, Samraat, became one-paced three-sixteenths of a mile from home.

“To see all this happen, to see this dream come true, to put up so much – your savings, your retirement – and see him win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words,” said an emotional Coburn after the race.

And, so, once again, California Chrome made a “dumbass” look like a genius, for first turning down a $6 million offer, then a $6.1 million for 51 percent, the catch being that the colt must say goodbye to Art Sherman and Los Alamitos.

Said Coburn Derby week: "The offer we got for this horse was from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work 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.

"Not only no, but hell no."

Six million dollars? That used to be real money, good enough to divide the mighty Secretariat 40 different ways.

Written by John Pricci

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