LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a way, the crazy story of California Chrome, the early favorite of this year’s Kentucky Derby, is also the crazy story of the Kentucky Derby itself. Listen: This will be the 140th time they’ve run the Kentucky Derby. Almost nothing in American pop culture has been around that long.
The first time around, a little thoroughbred named Aristides raced to the early lead (he was put into the race just to set a fast pace; even his owners didn’t think he could actually win). Then he just stayed in the lead and stayed in the lead, and finally the trainer just waved him on to the finish.
That was 1875. There was no National League then. It would be 20 years before they would play the first U.S. Open golf tournament, 36 before the first Indianapolis 500. James Naismith would not invent basketball for another decade and a half; football was being played with 20 people on each side. The very first game of indoor ice hockey was played just two months before the first Derby. There were nine players on each team.
The Kentucky Derby was dreamed up by a guy named Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr. -– he was the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Best anyone can tell he was sort of a spoiled man living the life of luxury, and so of course he went to England to see The Derby, pronounced “DAR-by” a race of 3-year-olds in Epsom (it’s now often called the Epsom Derby). A bit of trivia for you: The Derby got its name from Edward Smith-Stanley who was the 12th Earl of Derby. For 200 or so years now, races featuring 3-year-old thoroughbreds are often called Derby, even if the pronunciation is different.
In any case, Clark so loved The Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris that he decided that his home state of Kentucky needed a world-class racetrack. Clark’s cousins John and Henry Churchill provided the land. Clark himself provided the energy and momentum; it seems that bringing racing to America was the first thing he had ever really cared about. The race track opened, and 10,000 people showed up to the first Kentucky Derby –- the women, according to John L. O’Connor’s “History of the Kentucky Derby” (written in 1921), had a portion of the grandstand dedicated to them and “the ladies in various costumes looked like so many parti-colored butterflies.”
So, basically, it was the Kentucky Derby as we know it right from the start.
There have been a few subtle changes. The famous twin spires were built in 1895. The race was shortened from 1 1/2 miles to it current 1 1/4 mile the next year. The red rose was made the official race flower in 1904. They started playing “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race around 1930.
But for the most part, the Kentucky Derby is the same race in the same place at the same time of year -- and it is as popular as ever, maybe even MORE popular than ever. More than 150,000 people will attend. More than 15 million people will watch on television -- more than half of them women.
How can the Derby still capture America’s attention?
The answer might have more to do with California Chrome than you would think.
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So it goes like this: Two guys who have real jobs and no money to burn and almost nothing in common decided to buy a losing race horse together because, well, they just felt like it.
One guy, Steve Coburn, is a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy who wears a cowboy hat wherever he goes and says he was born with spurs on. Perry Martin is an old Chicago guy who owns Martin Testing Laboratories near Sacramento, Calif. They met because they both loved horse racing and because they each had bought 5 percent of a rather unfortunate racing filly named Love the Chase. Together they watched that filly lose. And lose. And lose.
In time, all their partners grew tired of the losing and decided it was just about time to sell off Love the Chase and make at least a little bit of their investment back. Thing is, Coburn and Martin had kind of fallen in love with the filly. They scrounged up $8,000 and bought her outright. They did this even after they heard a groom pronounce that anyone who would actually pay money to buy Love The Chase was a dumb ass.
They promptly decided to call their partnership DAP – Dumb-Ass Partners.
How much better can it get? Much better. After they watched her predictably lose a couple more races, DAP bred her with an equally lackluster horse called Lucky Pulpit, who had been anything but lucky. The stud fee for Lucky Pulpit was $2,500. It is telling that, according to various sources -- including a brochure I picked up from Claiborne Farm -- stud fees tend to “start at $2,500.”
One day after California Chrome was born, Steve Coburn saw him and said the horse looked exactly like he did in a dream he’d had a few weeks earlier. “This little guy is going to do big things,” he said to himself.
Everything about this sounds like a sitcom, right? Two older guys, nothing in common, buy a broken-down horse, breed her with the cheapest horse they can find, and then believe they have a Kentucky Derby winner. Then, to add to the comedic possibilities, they send California Chrome to a kindly 77-year-old trainer named Art Sherman who last went to the Kentucky Derby in 1955, when he was a stable boy and slept on the train next to a horse name Swaps.
As it turns out, Swaps won that Derby with Willie Shoemaker riding. Sherman smiles when he says that he was not exactly important enough to be in the winning photograph.
If you were trying to NOT develop a Kentucky Derby horse, this is more or less how you would do it: Buy a losing horse, breed her with another, send her to a trainer who has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse.
But, at last, now we are getting to the point. For a good while as a 2-year-old, California Chrome showed some promise but nothing too earth-shattering. He won a couple of early races, but in September and again November he finished a distant sixth. The Chrome people decided to switch jockeys to Victor Espinoza, who had won the Kentucky Derby on War Emblem more than a decade ago.
In Espinoza’s first ride at Hollywood Park, in a race called King Glorious, California Chrome put on a charge that sent chills through every member of DAP. It’s the feeling horse racing lifers will spend millions and millions of dollars to feel … and usually never do. California Chrome was fourth at the final turn, when he suddenly turned on. He breezed by the other horses like it was easy, then he began pulling away, leaving the other jockeys looking at Espinoza’s purple silks with a jackass logo on the back. California Chrome won by six lengths.
“Victor said he was just cruising,” Sherman said in wonder after the race. “He said, ‘Please put me on more of those.’”
Next time out, in Santa Anita, California Chrome won by 5 1/2 lengths. At the San Felipe Stakes, California Chrome had become a bit of a phenomenon -- people loved the story. He went off as the favorite and had his best race. Chrome led wire-to-wire, pulled away for a seven-length victory. “Unbelievable,” Sherman said.
“People keep saying he’s only a California bred,” Coburn said of the doubters. “The horse doesn’t know that.”
Finally, there was the Santa Anita Derby, and now, horse racing fans everywhere watched closely. One more time, California Chrome blew away the field and won by five lengths. Chrome is the first thoroughbred in more than 100 years -- and perhaps ever -- to enter the Derby after winning four straight races by five-plus lengths.
Now, California Chrome is the favorite at the Kentucky Derby. Coburn and Martin say they have been approached to sell controlling interest in California Chrome for $6 million. They said no. For one thing, they said it would break Art Sherman’s heart. But, for another, they find themselves in the middle of a sports miracle. And, really, how often does THAT happen?
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So, that gets us closer to the point: There are stories that can only happen at the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the Derby has many shades. There’s the gambling, the drinking, the decadence, the depravity, the Hunter S. Thompson stuff. And then there is the underbelly of thoroughbred racing, which was recently exposed in an undercover investigation by PETA (and published in the New York Times). The investigation centered on successful trainer Steve Asmussen, whose horse Untapable will run in the Derby.
Then, though, there are the stories and they just keep coming and coming. There is Canonero II, a horse that had been losing in Venezuela. Nobody thought Canonero even belonged at the 1971 Derby -- he didn’t even merit his own odds, he was just thrown into the mutual field. Canonero won anyway. To follow Steve Coburn’s line, the horse doesn’t know the odds.
There was Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 shot who was purchased for $9,500 and driven more than 1,000 miles to the Derby in a horse trailer attached to his trainer’s pickup truck. He stumbled out of the gate and was several lengths behind the entire field for much of the race. Then, ridden by the great Calvin Borel, he went to the rail and ran by everybody and won going away.
On a beautiful day in 1913, in front of the biggest crowd in Derby history to that point (it was free to watch the Derby then) a horse named Donerail went off as a 91-1 long shot and then won.
Well, every year for 140 years there has been SOME sort of long shot story, some horse that nobody believed in, some trainer who had spent a lifetime waking up before dawn to teach horses how to run, some jockey who has come back from the abyss, some heart-warming twist that brings tears to the eyes, some owner who fell in love with the sport and has just kind of blundered around until finally getting here.
Truth is, every year there are a BUNCH of these stories. This year, Wicked Strong is named to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing last year and a part of his earnings go back to benefit the victims. Uncle Sigh -- named for Uncle Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty -- raises money for Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps veterans injured in conflict. Rosie Napravnik on Vicar’s In Trouble tries to become the first woman jockey to win the Kentucky Derby and Gary Stevens on Candy Boy tries to become the first 50-year-old in almost 20 years.
And there’s a horse named Danza. After Tony Danza.
Most of all, there’s California Chrome. Being the early favorite in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t mean all that much. These are 3-year-old thoroughbreds and the only thing that can be said with any certainly about 3-year-old horses is that you have no idea how they will run.
And that, too, is part of the Kentucky Derby wonder. It’s all so much to pack into two minutes, and I think that’s why the Derby keeps mattering. Sure, there are all the traditions, but we will move on from tradition. There is all the history, but we don’t always honor history. There is the betting and the fashion and all that.
But mostly, there’s the story. How can you hear the story of California Chrome, his unlikely owners, his old-time trainer, his beautiful running style ... and not care? Everyone will stop to at least see how he does, right? If he wins, there will be movie rights to think about. If he loses, well, there will be another great story next year. That’s the magic of the Derby. The stories never run out.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski