LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Thoroughbreds live outside the natural law that decrees survival of the fittest. Without selective breeding that began in the 17th century, they would not exist. These magnificent creatures are more fragile than the dreams they carry on ankles the size of a man's wrist.
They are incredibly vulnerable to illness and injury, to fever, coughs, colic and hoof and leg problems. No matter how talented a horse may be, its career is only a bad step away from ending. So when people get a seven-figure offer for a stakes winner, the wise move usually is to say yes. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin didn't, turning down $6 million for a 51-percent share of their 3-year-old colt California Chrome. It looks like the best deal they never made.
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The chestnut California-bred's runaway in Saturday's Kentucky Derby justified the faith of the "working guys" who bred him for $10,500. Coburn said if they had sold, "it would have meant he would have been running in somebody else's colors, with a new trainer, and we would have been in the background. It wasn't tough to say no. We knew within our souls what kind of horse we have because we've seen him grow up."
Coburn, a Nevada resident, works for a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and ID cards. Martin and his wife run a testing laboratory for consumer products in Sacramento, California. They're comfortable, not rich, but they're getting there after collecting the $1.4-million Derby winner's share.
"To see this all happen for me and my partner and our wives, to see this dream come true, means so much," Coburn said. "We have put so much blood, sweat and tears, our savings, our retirement, into this horse."
The son of Lucky Pulpit will be heavily favored May 17 in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. He'll face a bunch of new shooters, because except for runner-up Commanding Curve, none of the 18 horses California Chrome dominated at Churchill Downs is on the list of Preakness possibles.
Among the potential challengers are trainer Bob Baffert's Bayern, disqualified from first to second for interference in the Derby Trial, and Hoppertunity, a Derby scratch because of a foot problem. Others potentially in the mix are Illinois Derby winner Dynamic Impact; Social Inclusion, third in the Wood Memorial; Pablo Del Monte, who drew into the Derby when Hoppertunity scratched but didn't run; Ring Weekend, removed from Derby consideration by a fever, and Kid Cruz, Friendswith K Mill and Twenty Percent.
Art Sherman, at 77 the oldest trainer to win a Derby, wishes he had more time to prepare for the Preakness. "To be honest, I'm not too comfortable with running him back in two weeks," he said Sunday, "but I know that's what we're bound to do. I'm the kind of guy who likes to wait seven or eight weeks between races. These horses run hard and they need time to recover."
Sherman is scheduled to return to California on Monday, but California Chrome is staying at Churchill. "I'm thinking we might keep him here four or five days, then van him up to Pimlico," he said. "We could fly him, but we'll have to see."
Whenever he arrives, racing's new prince is sure to get the royal treatment.