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Kentucky Derby: Favorite California Chrome is racing on a rock star's dream

By Matt Majendie, for CNN
updated 6:31 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
Introducing racing's "rock star." Introducing racing's "rock star."
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'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
'The fastest two minutes in sport'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • California Chrome cost just $10,000 and is shock favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby
  • Trainer Art Sherman, who has been involved with classic since 1950s, calls him a "rock star"
  • His owners recently turned down a $6m offer for a half-share in the horse
  • California Chrome has been called a modern-day Seabiscuit and the "people's horse"

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(CNN) -- Welcome to the world of rock and roll racing.

"He loves the noise, he knows he's a star, he poses for the photographs," trainer Art Sherman --part of the team behind California Chrome, favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby -- tells CNN. "Pure and simple he's a rock star."

California Chrome's joint owner Steve Coburn is even more effusive.

"We've got one elderly gentleman who comes to the races who has a jackass tattoo on his shoulder," explains Coburn, a nod to the jackass on California Chrome's racing silks.

"Fans don't do that unless you're a rock star. People flock where he goes."

You can have all the money in the world to buy every single grain of sand on a beach but you can't buy this story
California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn

The equine equivalent of a musical superstar is also the main protagonist in a fairytale on a par with the great Seabiscuit, the diminutive thoroughbred racehorse which defied the odds and delighted a depression-hit U.S. and whose story was turned into a movie 11 years ago.

California Chrome must surely have Hollywood executives salivating at the prospect of how events might unfold at at Churchill Downs' historic dirt track in Louisville this weekend.

The three-year-old colt's remarkable tale began in the womb of Love the Chase, a mare that Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin bought for $8,000 with a view to breeding.

They bred her to the stallion Lucky Pulpit for a reduced fee of $2,000, the first breeding the novice pair had ever undertaken.

It could have been a case of first time lucky as their offspring has earned Coburn and Perry more than $1 million in prize money and chalked up illustrious wins at the Santa Anita Derby, San Felipe Stakes and California Cup Derby.

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His recent run of success -- four wins in his last four outings -- has marked California Chrome out as a pre-race favorite for the Kentucky Derby -- the first race in horse racing's coveted Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes -- in the chase for a purse of $2m.

Understandably, the horse's value has rocketed, and is now estimated to be around $12m. Coburn and Martin were recently offered $6m for a controlling 51% stake in the horse, which they turned down.

The whole story is so fanciful that the horse-owning partnership goes under the name Dumb Ass Partnership or DAP Racing, hence the jackass on their colors.

"When Perry and I bought the filly, one of the barn hands said we must be dumb asses to get into this game and hence the name," Coburn explains to CNN.

But through every strand and sinew there is a heart-warming tale behind California Chrome.

For a start, he races in the purple and green, the favorite colors of the duo's respective wives.

Then there's the location where the horse has been stabled.

His neighbours at Los Alamitos racecourse in Orange County are predominantly quarter horses, named for the quarter mile horse races that are regularly held at the track where California Chrome is exercised at 7.30 am every morning.

If California Chrome wins the Derby he will also become the first California-trained horse to win since Decidedly's success in 1962.

Then there is the small matter of his 77-year-old trainer Sherman, who has just 15 horses in his yard but whose history with the Derby dates back to 1955.

Back then, Sherman acted as the exercise rider for race winner Swaps, who also happens to feature in the distant bloodline of California Chrome.

Sherman, far younger and more energetic than his years would suggest, recalls: "I was barely 18 years old and my memories are a little bit different now. Back then I was so young, it didn't mean so much.

"I've put 60 years into this business and I thought my chance in the Kentucky Derby had gone. You never say never.

"Now I've got another chance. It's a fairytale and I do believe in fate. He'll be the horse to beat. He's been awesome these last four races, we just hope he has five in him. But it's a different ball game when 150,000 people are screaming at you. But he's a rock star isn't he? That shouldn't be a problem.

"He just loves to run, he'll run all day long. We just need some luck, that plays a big part in such a story. His story is just like that of Seabiscuit isn't it? It'd be a hell of a book or a movie if he pulls it off."

Sherman's first win as a jockey aptly came at Hollywood Park in 1957, where his current wonder horse first announced himself in the big time with victory in last year's King Glorious Stakes.

Every thoroughbred horse can be traced back to one of three stallions, and 95% of those go back to one -- the Godolphin Arabian, pictured. Named after his owner, Earl Francis Godolphin, the stallion lived from 1724-1753 and sired some of the greatest racehorses in history, with Seabiscuit and Man o' War just two of his direct descendants. Every thoroughbred horse can be traced back to one of three stallions, and 95% of those go back to one -- the Godolphin Arabian, pictured. Named after his owner, Earl Francis Godolphin, the stallion lived from 1724-1753 and sired some of the greatest racehorses in history, with Seabiscuit and Man o' War just two of his direct descendants.
A history of the thoroughbred
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A history of the thoroughbred A history of the thoroughbred

That he should have ever got here bred by Martin, who works for a consumer safety firm, and Coburn, whose company JCP Enterprises makes the magnetic strips on credit cards, is remarkable, bearing in mind this is the first horse that Coburn has ever raced.

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America's most prestigious horse race, the Kentucky Derby kicks off this Saturday. But who will scoop the 139th edition of the premier competition? America's most prestigious horse race, the Kentucky Derby kicks off this Saturday. But who will scoop the 139th edition of the premier competition?
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"One of the things on mine and my wife's bucket list was to go to the Kentucky Derby," he says. "I'll board the plane this year but I never imagined I'd do it with a horse I own.

"This whole thing is a fairytale coming true, it's a dream. It's better than a movie script because it's coming true. People spend millions on horses each year and we've spent basically $10,000."

The horse's name was also literally picked out of a hat as the two owners and their spouses each put a name into a hat for a waitress at a Californian restaurant to select.

The Derby favorite could just as easily have been called Lucky at Love or Big Chapter but Coburn's pick, California Chrome -- a nod to the white markings that are called chrome by horse racing aficionados -- proved the selection.

Whatever the name, the owners more often than not just call him junior but Coburn believes if he succeeds at Churchill Downs Saturday the he could become known as the "people's horse" too.

"I do believe he's that, like Seabiscuit," Coburn adds. "He became the people's horse in the depression because he was the little guy kicking the big guy. We're doing that in the same kind of way.

"No one ever gave it any credence and we shouldn't be where we are now. This isn't a blue-blooded horse, he's a proper red-blooded colt.

"We're just two guys that worked hard and still have our days jobs. We get up at 4.30am every morning to go to work. Well, I can't retire as I'd be in my wife's way and I think she'd shoot me! But we still work hard. We're not guys who could buy whatever we want."

Dream ending

The unnamed purchaser who offered $6m, however, clearly was. Surely Coburn was tempted to give in?

"It felt like a slap in the face after all we'd done," he says. "You can have all the money in the world to buy every single grain of sand on a beach but you can't buy this story.

"We've worked hard for this, similarly Love the Chase, which someone offered $1.5m for. This isn't about the money, this is about the dream and we want to finish off that dream."

Whether that dream reaches fruition in Illinois this weekend is another matter. Some pre-race rain is a slight concern for Sherman and his team but Coburn has never once wavered in his expectation.

"If he gets a clean run, he'll win," he says. "I've said that before and I've been told I'm bold and arrogant. I'm not either of those. I'm just a man that loves this horse and believes in the fairytale."

Saturday also happens to be Coburn's 62nd birthday, could that be when his fairytale comes true?

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