Chrome Sweet Chrome

With trainer Art Sherman announcing his retirement last month, the recent announcement of the Secretariat Vox Populi winner, and ballots for the Eclipse Awards nearly ready to be sent out, they have all combined to trigger memories of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, one of the most popular horses of our time who provided a whirlwind of emotions during and after his career. ~ Steve Haskin

Chrome Sweet Chrome

By Steve Haskin


On Friday, December 10, Art Sherman saddled his final runner. The 84-year-old trainer, who has been in racing for nearly 70 years, announced his retirement in November. Sherman will be remembered for his masterful job with California Chrome, getting this little-known California-bred , who was the result of a mating between an $8,000 claiming mare and a $2,500 stallion, to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the hearts of a nation and eventually the world.

With the voting for this year’s Eclipse Awards getting closer, I couldn’t help but think of Sherman, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, but wound up exercising horses in California and traveling cross-county on a train with the great Swaps to the 1955 Kentucky Derby at the age of 18, sleeping in the straw next to the colt. I also had to think of California Chrome’s owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn who were just as unlikely to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as their horse, being two ordinary working stiffs from Yuba City California and Topaz Lake, Nevada, who, as Coburn said, put “so much blood, sweat, and tears and savings into this horse,” turning down million-dollar offers for the colt before the Derby.  Together they wrote one of racing’s great Cinderella stories.

So, what does that have to do with the Eclipse Awards? Even in a world obsessed with statistics, which often take precedence over singular achievements far more profound than numbers, it is inconceivable that neither Sherman or Martin and Coburn were even named finalists for an Eclipse Award as trainer and owner in 2014 even though California Chrome was named Horse of the Year by a huge margin. That oversight was repeated two years later (with Coburn no longer a co-owner) when Chrome captured his second Horse of the Year title.

In 2014, Sherman was able to get this unlikely hero to win stakes in January, March, and April, then win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and a grade I stakes on Nov. 29. With help from his son and assistant Alan, he actually got California Chrome to win stakes from Dec. 22, 2013 to Nov. 29, 2014, including four Grade I’s and a Grade II and two Triple Crown events, and nearly pulling off the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which Chrome was beaten only two necks, despite having had only one prep race since the Belmont Stakes. And he got nothing out of that prep race, while having to fly cross-country to Philadelphia and back to California.

Following the Classic, California Chrome captured the Hollywood Derby on grass, becoming only the second Kentucky Derby winner in history to win a grade I stakes on grass that same year. The other horse to accomplish that feat was Secretariat.

So, why was Sherman not even a finalist for leading trainer in the Eclipse Award voting, and why wasn’t Martin and Perry not a finalist in either the owner or breeder category? Once again, Eclipse voters went by statistics to come up with their three finalists, ignoring the exceptional individual accomplishments that actually made a major impact on the sport.

Did voters snub Martin and Coburn because of the latter’s unfortunate comments on national TV following the Belmont Stakes that caused a furor throughout the sports world? While Coburn, who was a minority owner in the colt, was attacked mercilessly on social media, few people saw his generosity with the fans, as he interacted with them, posing for photos and signing autographs. Watching him with the fans who cheered him outside the walking ring at Parx Racing before the Pennsylvania Derby, you would never guess this was a person who had been vilified so severely for his actions when a camera was shoved into his face immediately after the race at a time when he was emotionally vulnerable.

As for Sherman, there are times when statistics can be superseded by a single extraordinary feat of great national importance if one wishes to step out of the box once in a while. And has there been a better representative for racing than Sherman at a time when racing needed all the wit, wisdom, and conviviality that he provided all year. One meeting with Sherman and you felt as if you’ve known him all your life. He was the uncle you wanted to invite over for Thanksgiving. Those qualities normally do not equate to being named a finalist for an Eclipse Award, but his masterful job with California Chrome certainly did.

All three of these men authored one of the great fairy tales in racing history that was born on Feb. 18, 2011 at Harris Farms near Coalinga, California. That was when Love the Chase gave birth to her colt by Lucky Pulpit. But it was not an easy birth. The mare had lacerated the wall of her uterus and could not be re-bred that year. She was bright and active and outwardly unaffected by the ordeal, but she and her foal had to remain confined to the stall for an extended period of time while the mare was treated and recovering. As a result, the foal wasn’t able to be out with the others to socialize and run around, so he became more focused on people than he was on horses and developed an amiable personality that continued throughout his career and as a stallion.

Several days prior to the birth, Coburn had a dream the foal would be a big chestnut colt with four white socks and a big blaze face. When he went to see the newborn foal for the first time, his wife Carolyn walked over to the stall, took a look inside, and couldn’t believe what she saw. She told her husband to come take a look. There before him was the colt in his dreams. Coburn became convinced his deceased sister was the colt’s guardian angel and would guide him every step of his journey. He continued to believe that, and as a result he felt Chrome was invincible.

When California Chrome left his dam and went out on his own and later began training, he impressed Harris Farms trainer Per Antonsen.

“He always had a lot of class,” he said. “He was very precocious and very forward and never missed a beat. He was a sound horse; never had a temperature, never got sick, and never had a pimple on him the whole time he was here. He enjoyed training and I told the owners, ‘You’re going to have a lot of fun with this one.’”

Art and Alan Sherman began training the colt immediately after his arrival from Harris Farms. One morning at Hollywood Park, Alan, still not realizing what he had after only a few three-furlong breezes, was looking for a horse to work a half-mile in company with California Chrome. That would help him determine how fast and competitive the colt was. He found out that Eoin Harty was working one of his best 2-year-olds, on whom he was high, and was also looking to test him in company.

Harty went to the frontside to watch the work, while Alan remained on the backside, watching from the trainer’s stand. Harty was feeling good about the matchup, getting to breeze his colt with an obscurely bred Cal-bred. He felt that was the perfect scenario to make his colt look good and boost his confidence against a likely inferior opponent.

“I had Iggy Puglisi up on my colt, and when I heard Alan was looking for someone to work with his horse, I said, ‘Good, we’ll beat the tar out of this Cal-bred,” Harty said.

But what Harty saw was not what he expected. His colt worked well, but this other colt dominated his horse.

“After the work I said to Alan, ‘I don’t know what you’ve got there, but that is a very good colt,’”Harty recalled. “I’ve been around a lot of good 2-year-olds with Bob Baffert and then on my own and when you see something that catches your eye early on it really stands out. And that was an eye-catching work by that colt. As a trainer, when your good 2-year-old is outworked, it’s a terrible feeling, especially when he’s outworked by a Cal-bred trained by a low-profile trainer.”

Alan added, “Eoin was pretty high on his colt and Chrome just dusted him. I saw that and went, ‘Oh, damn, what have we got here?’”

The fun that Per Antonsen told Martin and Coburn they were going to have with the colt started early on and continued right up to the Kentucky Derby, which was an experience Coburn, Martin, and Art and Alan Sherman will never forget. The loquacious Coburn by then was one of the most recognizable figures in the sport, with his large white mustache and cowboy hat, and the spokesman for the colt, who had rattled off impressive victories in the California Cup Derby, San Felipe Stakes, and Santa Anita Derby.

Following the San Felipe, Martin and Coburn turned down a multi-million-dollar offer for half interest in the colt. When they received an offer of eight figures following the Santa Anita Derby, Coburn’s response was, “Last week, my answer was ‘no,’ and this week, my answer is ‘hell, no.”

California Chrome went on to score another easy victory in the Kentucky Derby. After the race, Martin was so proud to be able to share this moment with his 83-year-old mother Catherine, who was driven to Kentucky from Michigan by his brother. He stood by the rail and helped her into a wheel chair, then walked behind her as she was wheeled across the track to the winner’s circle. He tried hard to fight back the tears that were welling up and attempted to speak, but no words would come out. All he could do was shake his head and say with a quavering voice, “I have to go after my mom.”

Alan Sherman was trying to come to terms with his own emotions as he led California Chrome back to the barn area following the winner’s circle ceremonies, thinking about how special this was for his father after so many years of training mostly nondescript horses. He was breathing heavily walking on the track as the cheers from the crowd rained down on him and the colt. The wall of noise that engulfed him was drowned out by the thoughts and feelings swirling around in his head, as he tried to comprehend everything that had happened not only on this day, but over the past couple of months.

“It’s awesome,” he said, only able to get several short exclamatory phrases out at a time. “I can’t believe it; unbelievable… I’m at a loss for words… I’m just so excited… It’s amazing… This is so great. I can’t even imagine how my father feels right now.”

Art, after arriving in Kentucky, had gone to visit the grave of his beloved Swaps located behind the Kentucky Derby Museum to say a little prayer that California Chrome could become another Swaps. Several days later, at age 77, he became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. He had found his Swaps.

Overwhelmed by the experience, he said as he was led to the interview room by four Louisville police officers, “This is pretty cool. I’ve never had a police escort before. You think about it, that you’re going to get lucky one day, but maybe it’s all fate somehow. I’m a big believer in fate.”

As Coburn said following the race, “Art Sherman has come full circle, from exercise rider of a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby to training a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby.” How could Sherman not believe in fate, which apparently has no timetable? After all, it only took 59 years for him to come full circle,

Yes, it truly was a time for California Dreamin.’ For Steve Coburn, his dream prior to the colt’s birth had become a prophecy; the ultimate fairy tale. For Perry Martin, his dream was to be able to share this experience with his mother. For Art Sherman, his dream had been guided by fate and the memory of Swaps and sleeping in the straw next to the horse on a cross-country train ride nearly six decades earlier. And while on the subject of fate, California’s Chrome’s broodmare sire Not For Love’s third dam is Intriguing, a daughter of Swaps. By being inbred to Intriguing through the great filly Numbered Account, it means that California Chrome is inbred to Swaps.

Art Sherman summed up the day and the experience best when he said, “I think of all my friends who have died and I’m so thankful that I’m here. I still have a lot of friends at the racetrack and I’ve been around a long time. But I’m still the same old Art Sherman…except I won the Kentucky Derby.”

When California Chrome triumphed two weeks later in the Preakness and approached the gates of the pantheon, it was evident that racing had undergone a brief, but dramatic change. This was not a time for bluebloods, but for blue collars. Not a time for nobility, but a couple of working stiffs whose stable name was Dumb Ass Partners. The silver spoons that fed racing’s giants for most of the 20th century were for now plated with chrome.

California Chrome’s career would go on to take many twists and turns, taking him all over the world, starting with a second-place finish in the 2015 Dubai World Cup and a stay in England, where he trained for months, but failed to make the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot due to a foot bruise. This was followed by Martin’s and Coburn’s breakup and the horse running under the name California Chrome LLC . Then came a resounding victory in the 2016 Dubai World Cup and a second Horse of the Year title before the colt’s retirement to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky and  being shuttled to Chile for two years. Finally, in 2019, Chrome was sold to the JS Company of Japan, where he now resides at the Arrrow Stud in Hokkaido, with the stipulation that he be returned to the United States at the conclusion of his breeding career.

The story he has left and his legacy will be remembered for many years.

He is the only Kentucky Derby winner in history to be voted Horse of the Year at age 5 or older. That makes him a throwback, as not even the tough iron horses of the past who ran well past their 3-year-old year have accomplished that.

He also is the first Kentucky Derby winner to win multiple stakes after the age of 4 since Citation, who did not race at all at 4, and was dominated by Noor at age 5, but kept in training at age 6 in an attempt to become racing’s first millionaire.

He was the first horse to be voted Horse of the Year in non-consecutive years since John Henry in 1981 and ’84 and the first non-gelding in history to accomplish it (based on the nationally recognized Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph poll).

He is the only horse to win the Vox Populi Award twice. 

He became first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby in 52 years.

As mentioned earlier, he is the only Kentucky Derby winner along with Secretariat to win a Grade 1 stakes on grass.

He is the only horse ever to win or place in two Breeders’ Cup Classics and two Dubai World Cups. (In his two placings in the Breeders’ Cup Classic he was beaten a total of three-quarters of a length).

His five victories in million-dollar races are second only to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and he is the only Kentucky Derby winner to win two million-dollar races at age 5.

Finally, a feat that may never be duplicated is winning two legs of the Triple Crown and then winning six stakes as a 5-year-old.

We who love this sport realize that horses are embedded in our soul from childhood, whether through equine heroes such as The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and Misty of Chincoteague or TV stars like Trigger, Silver, and even Mister Ed

How many children have hopped aboard their rocking horse and built up speed until they felt as if they were airborne. They no longer were sitting atop a piece of wood, but atop Secretariat or Seattle Slew, imagining what it would be like to ride or even own or train such swift and noble steeds.

Art Sherman, Steve Coburn, and Perry Martin started off with a cheap rocking horse hoping to get a few thrills and saw it come to life, turning into a beloved superstar who would take them on an unforgettable ride.

Sherman is now retired with a lifetime of special memories and Perry Martin is working on a book about Chrome’s adventures titled California Chrome – Our Story scheduled for release in 2022 (and available for pre-publication purchase in January at 

All we can hope for now is that California Chrome has a good and productive life in Japan and that some day we can be reunited with him at Old Friends or another home. He no longer will look like the Chrome we remembered on the racetrack or at Taylor Made Farm, but at least we will be able to see those flashy markings and reminisce about his brilliant career, his burnished coat that shined like copper in the sunlight, and the amiable way he welcomed visitors. But most of all we will remember all the joy he brought to so many.

Photos courtesy of Juan Ignacio Bozello, Eclipse Sportswire, Harris Farms, Joe Ulrich, and Courtney Stone


There will be no column next week because of Christmas, but I want to take this time to wish everyone a Happy Holiday and to remind you to watch Vox Populi Award winner Hot Rod Charlie make his next start in the San Antonio Stakes, December 26 before targeting the Dubai World Cup in March. ~ SH


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