Sports
10:14 am
Sat May 3, 2014

A Black Sheep Crashes The Kentucky Derby

Originally published on Sat May 3, 2014 12:33 pm

The favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby is a flashy red horse with a big white blaze down his face. California Chrome is of humble origin, and he'll be taking on expensive horses with Kentucky bluegrass connections, but he also comes with a lot of quirks that have folks rooting for him.

At age 77, trainer Art Sherman has finally hit the jackpot.

"I always call him a rock star, because he is a rock star right now," Sherman says. "He's the little horse against all the big horses. Reminds me of David against Goliath."

California Chrome aside, Sherman is himself an underdog in this race. He trains 16 horses. The top trainers in the business oversee hundreds of horses, often bringing a couple to the Derby each year.

The last time Sherman was at the Kentucky Derby with a runner was back in 1955. The horse was a West Coast invader named Swaps. Sherman was 19 then, just learning the game.

"They were surprised that we brought a runner into their midst. They used to kinda think that Cal-breds were inferior to their Kentucky-bred horses," he says.

Sherman has a feeling they still think that way. He anticipated that Chrome would have a target on his back in Louisville.

Owners who run a horse in the Derby can invest millions of dollars to get there. Chrome's people haven't. He's a cheaply bred horse, born in California's Central Valley. Yet he's turned out to be a very fast racehorse. He easily beat the best on the West Coast in the Santa Anita Derby a few weeks ago.

Perry Martin, who co-owns California Chrome with Steve Coburn, has "the highest degree of confidence" in his horse.

"But they run the race because anything can happen," Martin says.

Chrome's mom was the first racehorse Martin and Coburn ever purchased together. A groom told them, "Anyone who buys that horse is a dumb ass." Martin says he looked at Coburn and asked, "Dumb ass partners?"

"We shook hands, and we were off and running," Martin says.

Really, the business is called Dumb Ass Partners.

Now there's no separating the owners from their horse, even though Chrome has four white feet, long considered bad luck among horsemen.

Trainer Art Sherman says he completely understands why the owners turned down an offer of $6.5 million to buy a controlling interest in Chrome.

"You get attached to a horse," Sherman says. "It's like one of your kids. You know, you take a lot of pride. Would you sell one of your kids if all of a sudden he becomes a superstar and they said, 'I'll give you a million dollars for your kid?' Would you sell him?"

Still, if Chrome doesn't run well, there will be a lot folks laughing at Dumb Ass Partners for not taking the money. Owner Perry Martin knows this. How is he handling the pressure?

"Bourbon," he says with a laugh. "It really calms your nerves."

California Chrome is heavily favored to win the Kentucky Derby afternoon, so if you make a small bet on him to win, you won't make much money. That won't stop his fans in California from cheering him home.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Later today, the most exciting two minutes in sports, the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. The clear odds on favorite is a chestnut colt with humble origins.

California Chrome is taking on some really posh horses with Kentucky bluegrass pedigrees. Julia McEvoy, from member station KQED, reports there are lots of charming quirks about California Chrome that's got folks rooting for him.

JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: A man can spend his whole life trying to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby and never make it. But at age 77, trainer Art Sherman has finally hit the jackpot.

ART SHERMAN: I always call him a rockstar. He's - because he is a rockstar right now. He's the little horse that's against all the big horses. Reminds me of David and Goliath.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

MCEVOY: Sherman's talking about California Chrome, whom you just heard from there. Sherman himself is an underdog in this race. He trained 16 horses. The top trainers in the business oversee hundreds, often bringing a couple of horses to the Derby each year. The last time Sherman was at the Kentucky Derby with a runner was back in 1955.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1955 KENTUCKY DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Out in the middle of the track, it's Swaps...

MCEVOY: The horse was a west coast invader named Swaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1955 KENTUCKY DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It's Swaps, the winner by a length and a half.

MCEVOY: Sherman was just 19 then, learning the game.

SHERMAN: They were surprised that we brought a runner into their midst. They used to kind of think that Cal-breds were inferior to the Kentucky-bred horses, you know.

MCEVOY: Don't they still think that?

SHERMAN: I got a little feeling they do. (Laughing) I know when I go back there with California Chrome, he's going to have a target on his back.

MCEVOY: That's because owners who run a horse in the derby can invest millions of dollars to get there. Chrome's people haven't. He's a cheaply-bred horse born in California's Central Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTA ANITA DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And California Chrome is absolutely sensational.

MCEVOY: Yet he's turned out to be a very, very fast racehorse. He easily beat the best on the West coast in the Santa Anita Derby a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SANTA ANITA DERBY)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: California Chrome will be carrying the hopes of California all the way to the Kentucky Derby.

PERRY MARTIN: I have the highest degree of confidence in my horse, but they run the race because anything can happen.

MCEVOY: Perry Martin co-owns California Chrome with a guy named Steve Coburn. They bought Chrome's mom, and she was the first racehorse they ever purchased on their own. Perry Martin says he met Steve for the first time outside her barn.

P. MARTIN: So we're talking, and a groom walked by and said, you know, you guys looking to buy a horse? And we said, yeah. And he goes, anybody that buys a horse is a dumb ass. So Steve looked at me. I looked at him. I said, dumb ass partners? And he goes, sure.

MCEVOY: Really, the business is called Dumb Ass Partners. Now, people in horseracing talk a lot about luck because you can have the best horse in the world, but things can still go wrong. Should we be concerned that Chrome has four white feet, long-considered bad luck among horsemen?

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE RACE)

MCEVOY: Trainer Art Sherman says that won't matter on derby day. He completely understands why the owners turned down an offer of six and a half million dollars to buy a controlling interest in Chrome.

SHERMAN: You get attached to a horse, you know. It is really something else. It's like one of your kids, you know. You take a lot of pride. Would you sell one of your kids if you - all of a sudden he becomes a superstar, and they said, hey, I'll give you a million dollars for your kid? Would you sell him?

MCEVOY: Still, if Chrome doesn't run well, there will be a lot of folks laughing at Dumb Ass Partners for not taking the money. Owner Perry Martin knows this. So how is he handling the pressure?

P. MARTIN: Bourbon. (Laughing) It really calms your nerves.

MCEVOY: California Chrome is heavily favored to win this afternoon's Kentucky Derby. So if you make a small bet on him to win, you won't make much money. But that won't stop his fans in California from cheering him home.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE RACE)

MCEVOY: For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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