Skip to main content

Flashy Piner wins the Derby

May 19, 2014

California Chrome, with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, warms up at Pimlico in preparation for this Saturday’s Preakness. Chrome has Big Pine roots, including “aunt” Wahnema Coburn, sister of owner Steve Coburn. Photo courtesy Sporting News

Steve Coburn moved with his family to Big Pine in the 1960s around the age of 7. He still has family here, his sister Wahnema Coburn, and roots in the little community, people who still remember him. But as of May 3, he and his horse, California Chrome, have become the buzz of the town.
Calls and e-mails started filtering into the Register the week after the 140th Run for the Roses on May 3, a run Chrome won, handily, as they say at the track. The California-bred chestnut led by an impressive margin before his jockey held him back with the finish line in sight. No point in running the horse into the ground; a win by 1-3/4 lengths is as good as a win by 5-lengths.
“Did you know the owner used to be a Piner?” was the first e-mail. Then Bob Steele called to confirm what seemed unlikely. Only extraordinarily rich people own horses who win the Kentucky Derby, sheik-rich folks with East Coast horses raised on blue-grass pastures with blue-blood lineage.
Then Wahnema Coburn stopped by, describing herself as the aunt of California Chrome. Yes, it was true. “Steve works in Gardnerville (Nev.),” she said. “He’s just a blue-collar guy but he’s always been around horses and he liked to bet.”
Coburn’s anonymity disappeared on May 3. According to his sister, when he got back to his house in Topaz, the place was swarmed with media. He went to work the next day, at a company in Gardnerville that makes magnetic tape for credit cards and hotel keys. His partner, Perry Martin, owns a lab in California that tests air bags and landing gear.
The two split the cost to breed Chrome, starting with an $8,000 mare, Love the Chase, and a $2,000 stud fee for Lucky Pulpit. That’s $10,000, halved, a nice chunk of change for most requiring some serious financial maneuvers for a “blue collar guy,” Wahnema Coburn said. The two were offered $6 million for 51 percent of the horse, two months before the Derby.
By then the 3-year-old had been fully tested, starting his racing career on April 28, 2013. According to the Thoroughbred Database, Chrome, or Junior as Coburn and Martin call him, has had 11 starts and seven wins. He broke his maiden in his second race, beating the field by 2-3/4 lengths, struggled through the next two races then took the King Glorious Stakes in late December 2013, the final stakes race at Hollywood Park and Chrome’s first with Victor Espinoza. He blistered the field as a 3-year old, all with Espinoza aboard. He won the California Cup Derby in January, the Grade II San Felipe Stakes in March and the Santa Anita Derby in early April.
Chrome was born at the Harris Ranch, off the I-5 in the Central Valley near Coalinga. His speed isn’t a fluke. You look at his pedigree, back a few breedings and there are names even those casually interested in Thoroughbred racing can recognize: Seattle Slew, Northern Dancer, Native Dancer, Secretariat, Nashua. Those who know breeding say the good genes can get diluted over generations, but occasionally they all come together in a horse like Chrome, whose distinguishing features are his big white blaze and four white stockings. Cowboys call that chrome, on a Quarter Horse; who knows what the East Coast breeders call it.
The horse’s trainer is another story all by himself. Art Sherman, 77, was an exercise rider for Swaps, another name even those vaguely aware of racing may recognize. He travelled to the Derby in 1955 in Swaps’ boxcar. He’s never brought a horse to the Derby, until Chrome. He took Chrome to Los Alamitos for his training. For those only vaguely aware of racing, Los Alamitos is a Quarter Horse track in north Orange County. According to a write-up in The New York Times, Coburn and Martin went with Sherman because he “was old-school.”
Wahnema Coburn describes the colt as a “people horse,” inclined to come lay his head on your shoulder, behavior not usually associated with high-strung race horses. “He was handled a lot when he was born,” she said, “he takes a lot of things in stride.”
Chrome took his first plane trip to the Derby and, according to news reports, took that in stride as well. His only issue was unloading; he wanted to come down the ramp backwards, the way he was used to unloading out of an earth-bound horse trailer.
Two days before the Derby, there was a list of all the reasons why an “old school,” California-bred horse wouldn’t win the Derby. The last one was Decidedly in 1962. The day after the Derby, the buzz was on the Triple Crown, a goal not reached since Affirmed did it in 1978. The second leg of that journey is this Saturday at the Preakness, run at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland followed three weeks later by the Belmont Stakes in New York on Saturday, June 7. Secretariat and Seattle Slew both brought home the Crown in the 1970s.

View more articles in:
Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes