The 30: The Blue Period

The Perfect Draft

Ghosts of California

How California Chrome’s win at the Kentucky Derby unlocks a secret history of West Coast horse racing

There’s a horse buried at Hollywood Park. On a warm March morning in Los Angeles, a small group of students and archaeologists from the University of Southern California dug a hole in the ground behind what used to be the grandstand. They were searching for the remains of a horse named Native Diver, a brown gelding out of Fleet Diver who died in 1967 of colic at the age of eight. Native Diver never won a Kentucky Derby, or any kind of championship. He never sired another horse. He raced 81 times and won 37 of those races. To most of the world, Native Diver was an unremarkable racehorse. To the state of California, however, he was a hero. In his six years of racing, he won stakes races at six tracks across California, including the Hollywood Gold Cup three years in a row. His life and career was honored with a monument and a grave on the grounds of the racetrack. But now, 47 years later, Hollywood Park is dead, too.1 The track ran its last stakes race on December 22, 2013. The winner of that race, the $200,000 King Glorious Stakes, was a two-year-old chestnut colt named California Chrome.

California Chrome is the only horse to ride under the banner of Dumb Ass Partners. The “partners” in Dumb Ass Partners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, met as part of a larger syndicate that owned shares in a horse named Love the Chase. When Love the Chase proved a poor prospect on the racetrack, the partnership wanted to dissolve and offer the horse for sale at a bargain. Coburn and Martin weren’t ready to give up. They bought the horse and incorporated DAP Racing. They bred Love the Chase to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit for $2,000 — a pittance. The very first foal out of Love the Chase was California Chrome, so named because of the horse’s white markings on the legs and head — “chrome” in equine parlance.

At two years old, California Chrome won the second race he entered. From there he had a spotty record running in special races restricted to horses born in California. Once the horse paired up with jockey Victor Espinoza in the King Glorious Stakes on the final day at Hollywood Park, he never looked back. He would go on to capture his next three races, including the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. Dumb Ass Partners figured they had a world-beater on their hands. They opted to enter the horse in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.

The Monday before the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome arrived in Louisville on an airplane. The horse wasn’t sure how to get off. He walked backward down the ramp from the plane to the tarmac. Much like Native Diver, who in 81 starts left the state only one time, California Chrome had never been outside the Golden State, let alone on an airplane.

This provincialism isn’t unusual. Horses typically stay on one coast or the other. There have been plenty of reasons for the division between East and West Coast horse racing. Early on it was the difficulty of travel. Until the first racehorse was transported by plane in 1945, horses traveled by rail and by trailer, making cross-country trips taxing on the animals. Peter Eurton, the trainer of Dance With Fate, another California-based entrant in this year’s Kentucky Derby, said those prohibitive costs persist. “It’s so much easier for East Coast horses to ship,” Eurton explained. “You can hit so many tracks from New York down to Florida in three or four hours. For us to leave, it’s a big deal.”

Another reason is the weather. Climate has an effect on the racing surfaces, and as a result has an impact on how a horse is trained. “They put a lot more sand in them here due to weather,” Eurton said. “The dirt tracks from Belmont down to Churchill, you’re going to end up hurting your horse, so they train them slower, the workouts are more methodical.”

In 2006, California mandated that all major thoroughbred tracks change their dirt surfaces to synthetic materials in an effort to slow the injury and death rate among horses. Because horsemen felt that a horse’s dirt form didn’t carry over to the synthetic surfaces, many opted not to run their horses on them. Across the next few years, a political fight over the use of the surfaces boiled over within the industry and the state government, causing some tracks in California to switch to synthetic, then back to dirt again, driving trainers mad in the process.

That California Chrome had run nearly all his races on synthetic surfaces leading up to the Kentucky Derby led some rival trainers to discount his chances. Dale Romans, trainer of Medal Count, claimed he wasn’t betting on California Chrome to finish anywhere on the board, let alone first. “I didn’t think he fit the profile to win the Derby,” Romans said.

While these challenges made it less likely a horse would prepare in California for a Kentucky Derby bid, the lack of breeding operations in the state made it all but impossible to imagine a horse bred there would ever win the Derby. Only 8 percent of the yearly foal crop comes from California, while more than 34 percent comes from Kentucky. Of the 139 Kentucky Derby winners, 106 were born in Kentucky, while only three were born in California, the last of which was Decidedly in 1962.

It was all anyone could talk about the week of the 140th Kentucky Derby, where California Chrome was the overwhelming favorite to win on the morning line odds. Even the connections to Dance With Fate tried to convince me that one of the advantages their horse had over California Chrome was that theirs was born in Florida. (Still, when push came to shove, they rode for California. “If it isn’t our horse, I hope California Chrome wins,” Eurton said. “It can only be good for the state.”) Coburn dismissed the “California curse” as absurd. “Guess what: He don’t know he’s California-bred, and I don’t care if he knows it or not.”

Still, who would challenge him? Who had a record to match Chrome’s four consecutive wins by a combined 24¼ lengths? Who else was coming off triple-digit speed figures in back-to-back graded-stakes wins? Who else looked as impressive as Chrome did drawing away in the stretch of the Santa Anita Derby, his jockey never once using the whip? Who would be the Easy Goer to Chrome’s Sunday Silence? The War Admiral to his Seabiscuit? The Alydar to his Affirmed?

When the bell rang and the horses sprang from the gate in the 11th race at Churchill on Saturday, California Chrome headed straight to the front. Espinoza wasn’t sure that’s where he wanted the horse. It’s a long race, the longest that any of the horses in it had ever run. It’s rarely won by a horse going wire-to-wire. Espinoza made a split-second decision to ease the horse back to third, sit close to the leaders, and wait to pounce. Then he sensed trouble.

“I saw one horse inside of me, the other one outside of me,” Espinoza said. “Then I see everybody was coming.” California Chrome was seconds away from being trapped in traffic, with no clear path to move up when the time came to ask him. Espinoza panicked. “My heart started going like a hundred miles an hour. I didn’t want him trapped.”

Espinoza moved the horse to the outside, just a tad, on the first turn. “My horse’s head was just outside a little bit from the front horses and that was it.” From there Espinoza knew California Chrome had room to do his thing, to run straight and fast without any trouble. He relaxed on the horse through the backstretch, feeling good about his position off the leaders. “Turning for home, I let it go. That was it.” Espinoza showed the horse the whip, asking him to run. And that’s just what he did. He coasted to victory and became the fourth California-born horse to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May.

140th Kentucky Derby

In the hysteria in the grandstands as California Chrome came flying down the stretch, Steve Coburn and his wife, Carolyn, embraced and wept. All around them were the owners and trainers of their rivals, cheering and applauding them. “Who’s a dumbass now?” yelled one. “Hey, good job, dumbass!” said another. Romans was contrite. “I was very, very wrong,” he said. California Chrome “has a new fan.”

After the race, Coburn said he felt mystical about it all. He told all about how weeks before California Chrome was born, the horse appeared to him in a dream, a spitting image. He talked of how California Chrome was born on the birthday of his sister Brenda, who died of cancer at 36, and how he felt it was no coincidence that it had been 36 years since the last Triple Crown winner. He talked about all the coincidences and decisions that had to go the right way to get California Chrome to this point, not the least of which was turning down an offer of $6 million for 51 percent of the horse before the Kentucky Derby — an absurd amount of money even for a Derby favorite. Over the years there had been similar offers by deep-pocketed owners, and few, if any, had ever said no.

“It wasn’t tough for us to say no,” Coburn said. “We knew within our souls what kind of horse we had.” More important, however, Coburn didn’t like the idea that the new owners would move the horse out of California. Coburn said California Chrome’s home is “Los Alamitos, which he loves.” And the new owner wanted California Chrome to switch trainers. As far as Coburn and Martin were concerned, that dog wasn’t gonna hunt.

When Coburn and Martin went looking for a trainer for their one and only horse, they wanted two things: a trainer with a small barn who would pay a lot of attention to them and their horse, and a trainer who was “old school” — and would run the horse more frequently as a two-year-old. Art Sherman was recommended to them and the trio hit it off. Sherman was a simple guy with a modest operation. He was honest and fair and worked hard. Forget about winning a Kentucky Derby; Sherman had never even entered one. He rarely raced outside California. At 77 years old, he was an icon, a beloved figure who represented a lifetime of dedication to California horse racing. He was a lot like Native Diver in that respect. Hell, he was a lot like Swaps.

Nobody is really from California. The state has a reputation, fair or not, as a place people come to rather than a place people are from. As a result, it has always been willing to adopt its transplants — from the Dodgers to The Tonight Show — and celebrate them as its own. You can see this in the fact that so many of the great West Coast heroes in horse racing (Sunday Silence, Affirmed, Seabiscuit) were born in other states. Then there was Swaps.

When Swaps traveled to Louisville in 1955 to become only the second California-born horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, he traveled by train. On the long voyage, a teenage exercise rider named Art Sherman kept him company, curling up and sleeping next to the horse at night. Sherman went on to become a jockey for a short time and later a trainer. Originally from New York, Sherman settled in California and worked the horse racing circuit there his entire life. Other than as an exercise rider, Sherman never returned to the Kentucky Derby, and figured he never would. What he didn’t figure was that he’d meet Coburn and Martin. What he could never have dreamed was that the very first and only horse the two men would ever bring him would be a $2,000 yearling that would grow up and win the Santa Anita Derby and take Sherman back to Louisville, this time as the trainer of the favorite. But that’s just what happened. And it made Coburn and Martin feel good to share that with a guy like Sherman. When $6 million came knocking and asked them to throw old Art Sherman under the bus, it made them feel good to say no.

“Sometimes you don’t get a lot of respect,” said Sherman after becoming the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. “We’re in Kentucky. You know most of the Derby winners are bred here.” When Sherman came to Louisville on that train with Swaps, they didn’t give the California invaders much respect then, either. Even after Swaps won the 1955 Derby, the connections of the beaten favorite, Nashua, crowed for more than a year that their horse was better. All the second-guessing and trash-talking eventually led to a match race — a race between just two horses — which Nashua won a few days after Swaps reinjured his foot. Swaps would go on to break track records all over the country, capture a half-dozen more Handicap championships, and win Horse of the Year honors in 1956.

Sherman has outlived a lot of his friends, damn near all of his horses. He’s even outlived Hollywood Park itself. When Richard Shapiro, grandson of the man who owned and bred Native Diver, showed up at the former Hollywood Park earlier this year to witness the unearthing of Native Diver’s bones, he brought with him a photo of the horse winning the 1961 Hollywood Gold Cup that was signed by Cary Grant. He said he didn’t care if they found Native Diver’s bones or not. “That is not his soul down there,” he explained. “Those are his remains.”

There’s a horse buried at Churchill Downs. A few days before the 2014 Kentucky Derby, Art Sherman went down to the garden at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. There he visited the grave of Swaps to pay his respects.

When asked by reporters to compare Swaps to California Chrome, Sherman demurred. “It’s really difficult for me. I hate taking anything away from Swaps. He had six world records.”

Coburn likes to point out that California Chrome has Swaps in his bloodline on both his mother and father’s side. “You go back further and look at the bloodlines, see who they were back then, watch where they’re coming to right now,” Coburn said. “If all the moons and stars in the universe line up, you can get a horse like we have.”

At Swaps’s grave, Sherman said a little prayer. “I said, ‘Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into Chrome. I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.’” Could it be that Swaps heard him? Would he even recognize this old man as his kid exercise rider if he had? Would Swaps realize his distant descendant and his old rail partner were back in town, ready to hush the Kentucky boys once and for all? Would Swaps even know he was from California, and would he even care?

All we can know for sure is this — California Chrome won. 

Filed Under: Kentucky Derby, horse racing, california chrome, victor espinosa, art sherman

David Hill lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and the New York Times. He writes sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater.

Archive @ davehill77