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California Chrome: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

California Chrome wins Grade II, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes - Photo Credit: Melanie Martines

If you are looking for an article filled with personal attacks on the owners of California Chrome then this isn’t for you. I don’t know Perry Martin, and I don’t know former owner Steve Coburn. For all I know when the cameras aren’t on them they are good guys. Their story seems pretty cool actually…a couple of dumb asses (their words not mine) decide to get a race horse and that race horse turns into an all-time great. My friends and I have had that same conversation a thousand times. These guys accomplished the dream…dare I even say the American Dream!? Yet, somehow this incredible story has a dark cloud hanging over it. How is that even possible? This is too good of a story for anything negative…yet it always seems to happen. Over and over again. Again, I’m not here to personally attack the people responsible, I’m just merely here to lay out the facts of this absolutely incredible and unfortunate story.

The Good

Calling this section “The Good” doesn’t even begin to do this horse justice. California Chrome is one of the coolest horses we will ever see. The dumbass partners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn invested a mere $10,000 in this Lucky Pulpit Cal Bred colt, and he’s now the richest race horse in North American history.

Success didn’t come quickly for California Chrome as his two year old season was filled with up and downs. However, after closing out that year with a big win in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park he was set up for a monster 3-year-old season in 2014. He rattled off five wins to to start 2014, all of them being in runaway fashion. After his dominant performance in Santa Anita’s San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby the humbly bred colt had many doubters heading into the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. This horse had the breeding of a decent Cal Bred sprinter, but a blue blood Kentucky pedigree? I think not! Many of the Kentucky brass did not believe in this California superstar.

On Kentucky Derby day California Chrome was sent off as the favorite, but perhaps not as strong of a favorite as he should have been if he had a royal pedigree. Chrome proved them all wrong as he cruised home to a resounding Kentucky Derby win, and then two weeks later destroyed the field again in the Preakness Stakes. The stage was set for him at Belmont Park to become the first horse in 36 years to win the Triple Crown, and most of America thought he’d do just that. However, he did end up falling short that day, but it was still a solid effort that made his fans proud.

Despite the loss at Belmont and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year he still went on to become the 2014 Horse of the Year. He was a great race horse, but two years later is when this horse really blossomed from “great” to “out of this world.” After an injury filled 2015, California Chrome returned in 2016 with business on his mind! He ran 8 times and won 7 of those races including Grade/Group 1 wins in the Dubai World Cup, Pacific Classic, and Awesome Again Stakes. His only loss came to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

While his accomplishments on the track are unmatched by nearly any horse in history, that’s not the only great thing about his story. Trainer Art Sherman, who has never had a horse even close to this, got to show his excellent training abilities to the world with this horse. Art, and his son Alan Sherman, are incredible horseman that have always been overshadowed in California by the likes of Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, and Jerry Hollendorfer. However, the Sherman’s got to prove that their names belong right along side any trainer in America, and they’ve handled this situation with absolute class and graciousness. The happiness the horse racing world has for them is endless.

How about Victor Espinoza? Talk about a jockey that most had forgotten about on the California circuit. Victor is no stranger to success, but that success had dried up over the years prior to landing the mount on this horse. California Chrome put Victor Espinoza back on the map, and credit Victor for taking that momentum and running with it. Just one year after losing the Triple Crown with California Chrome, Victor was back at Belmont Park aboard American Pharoah with the Triple Crown on the line once again, and this time he got the job done. Sometimes it makes you wonder…if not for California Chrome would American Pharoah ever had won the Triple Crown? Chrome may have given Victor the confidence he needed to win the Triple Crown aboard American Pharoah.

Finally, last but not least, California Chrome has become the most popular race horse America has seen since Zenyatta. Not only did California Chrome bring thousands of new fans to the game, but he also energized current racing fans in a way they probably haven’t been energized in quite some time. The “Chromies” are a passionate and rabid fan base that is awesome to see, and really is a breath of fresh air to the racing community. Racing needs more horses like him that inspires people to come to the track and cheer so passionately. At times, social media likes to poke fun at the “Chromies,” but this group of fans are what this game is all about. Horse racing exists because of the fans, and the fans love this game so much because of horses like California Chrome.

The Bad

While the good certainly outweighs the bad…the bad is still there. It all started on June 7th, 2014, just seconds after the Belmont Stakes. Up to that point current co-owner Steve Coburn was the darling of America. As stated earlier, the story of how California Chrome came to be resonated with the “common folk.” Steve Coburn was the talking piece for California Chrome, and leading up to the Belmont Stakes loss he had done a wonderful job. Everyone loved him, and everyone was rooting for him. People that had no idea about racing still knew the story of California Chrome and they ate every bit of it up! They loved every second of it!

The Belmont Stakes loss was no doubt an incredible heartbreak. By the time of the race the horse was so popular nationwide, and even though he lost the race he gave his fans hope the entire stretch. He just didn’t get it done that day. It was disappointing, but it was nothing to hang your head about. The Chromies were upset and saddened by the loss. They also needed comfort from the man they loved and respected, and when the camera turned to Coburn they all expected that very thing to happen. Then the opposite happened…Steve Coburn turned the tide of this feel good story with one simple interview:

Looking back on this now you almost feel sorry for Steve Coburn. In my opinion, the main issue that has haunted these owners from day one is the fact they never realized just how lucky they were with California Chrome. One casual racing fan made the comment to me once: “Wow this is a one and million shot to get a horse like that!” I just chuckled and said, “No it’s not one in a million…it’s one in ten billion!!” To have this kind of pedigree produce this kind of monster is so incredible. It still blows my mind to this day. However, it can happen…and it did happen…and that’s what makes this sport so great. You can have all the money in the world, but you are guaranteed nothing in this game.

Things had come so easy for Coburn that I don’t think he ever thought the horse would lose at Belmont. In his mind the Triple Crown was easy and he had figured it out. Add that mindset with the raw emotion of getting your heart broken…it had to be tough. Of course then a camera was thrown in his face just seconds after they crossed the wire and it was a recipe for disaster. Coburn’s raw emotions got the best of him, but I’ll give him a lot of credit for apologizing later on national television. I like to look back on the situation and write it off as a man that had a really bad day.

The Ugly

Unfortunately Coburn’s blow up on national television was not the worst thing that an owner of California Chrome has done publicly to put a cloud over the situation. Enter Perry Martin who, until 2016, had been fairly quiet. Nobody really knew much about him, but we quickly have gotten acquainted with him. “The Ugly” started with Martin’s post race interview right after winning the Dubai World Cup this year. After a horse race that brought many racing fans to tears of joy, and tremendous pride in our country, Perry Martin got on TV and made comments that can only be described as unbelievable. He claimed he was disappointed because he thought Chrome would win by more, and that he wanted the track record. He also made a comment on Victor keeping him too wide the whole way around, and his only thought during the race was “Damn you Victor.”

Even with all the bad rap the horse had gotten because of Martin and Coburn, all seemed to have cooled down, and for the most part all had been forgiven. Then, of course, it happened again. At Saturday’s Eclipse Awards, just one week before the horse will compete in his last race ever in the Pegasus World Cup, California Chrome was named Horse of the Year for a second time. The occasion was widely popular as you could imagine, and everyone was thrilled that the most popular horse in America had won the the award. However, just like always and right on cue, the joy turned dark once again as Perry Martin gave this unfortunate Horse of the Year acceptance speech:

Sadly the moment was ruined. Social media went from joy to outrage just like that. Perry Martin never mentioned the horse. He never mentioned the trainer. He never mentioned the jockey. He never mentioned anything that had anything to do with…well anything. Sadly, Art Sherman didn’t even get to speak. You didn’t even know he was up there. The man most responsible for California Chrome’s success didn’t even get to say a word. We just got stories of desiccants, dumb turf writers, airplanes, Wyoming, Elk, and Yuba City.

Martin strikes me as the type that likes his privacy more than many of us. I don’t see that as a bad thing, and I don’t blame him for it either. Writers I’m sure have bothered him from day one, and I’m sure it does get old. However, those same writers have voted his horse as Horse of the Year twice now. It’s a give and take relationship. You don’t have to like them, but you don’t have to insult them on the sports biggest stage when all that your fans want to hear are stories about their favorite equine athlete. Maybe Martin didn’t care about what the fans wanted, or maybe he just doesn’t realize how much this horse means to people.

This week the amazing story comes to an end in the richest race he or any other thoroughbred has ever seen. California Chrome will run for the final time and I will cheer on this amazing animal one last time. It will be a sad day for so many fans as their hero puts a bow on his illustrious career. His tale is like nothing we’ve seen before, and most likely like nothing we’ll ever see again. The ride he’s taken us on. The good, bad, and ugly. It’s all been very special. Good luck to California Chrome, Sherman, Espinoza, and the Chromies one last time!

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