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A feel-good story when it was needed

5/3/2014

There's so much wrong with horse racing, but, then again, there is so much right. In what has been an otherwise ugly year for the game, here comes this bargain-basement colt trained by a 77-year-old Derby rookie and owned by a self-described pair of "dumb asses" to put a smile on everyone's faces on Kentucky Derby Day.

You'd like to say that the story of California Chrome is unbelievable but it's not, not when horse racing is the one sport where the impossible so often comes true. The out of the ordinary is the ordinary. Every Kentucky Derby is a Disney movie waiting to happen.

Billionaires, tycoons and sheiks scour the globe to find a horse with the talent, stamina and determination to win the Kentucky Derby and the vast majority of the time they fail. They give their horses to the royalty of the training profession, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Doug O'Neill, Jerry Hollendorfer, Bill Mott, Chad Brown.

Steve Coburn and Perry Martin appeared to be way out of their league when the owners started to think that maybe they could win the Kentucky Derby. The two are just a pair of "regular Joes" who were told that they were "dumb asses" if they thought they could make it in the racing game. That's where they got their stable name of DAP Racing, for Dumb Ass Partners.

Coburn and Perry were part of a syndicate that owned a slow horse named Love the Chase and bought out the other partners for all of $8,000. Love the Chase is the dam (mother) of California Chrome. The sire is Lucky Pulpit, who stands at stud for peanuts, $2,500.

Rather than turn California Chrome over to one of the stars of the Southern California training contingent they chose 77-year-old Art Sherman, the prototypical journeyman. He'd been around forever and had not had so much as one Kentucky Derby starter. The closest he had come was being the exercise rider for Swaps way back in 1955.

"Art Sherman has come full circle from an exercise rider of a California bred [Swaps] that won the Kentucky Derby to training a California bred that won the Kentucky Derby," Coburn said. "All I've got to say is if you don't believe in this horse now and don't believe that this man can train a horse you need to have your head examined."

So Sherman and his team lined up yesterday against Pletcher and Baffert, against horses that cost $270,000, $340,000, $300,000, $375,000, against horses by superstar sires like Dynaformer and Tapit. He was 5-2 on the tote board, but if you considered his backstory he should have been 5,000-1.

"It's a dream come true," Coburn said.

It didn't have to end up this way. The biggest story coming into the Kentucky Derby was the saga of Tapiture's trainer, Steve Asmussen, who was the subject of an undercover investigation by PETA, which alleged that his stable was guilty of animal cruelty. Innocent until proven guilty or not, no one wanted to see Asmussen win because he was a living reminder of the constant stream of negativity that has entrapped this sport, most of it having to do with animal welfare issues and drugs.

Todd Pletcher could have won. But, despite his terrible record in the Derby, he's the New York Yankees of horse racing. You respect him. But you don't root for him. Bob Baffert could have won. Nothing wrong with Baffert, but hasn't he won enough? Medal Count could have won, but his owner, B. Wayne Hughes, is a billionaire and it's just not that much fun when rich people get even richer.

Sometimes you have to wonder if the racing gods decide the outcome of the Kentucky Derby and not the horses themselves. Last year, it was respected trainer Shug McGaughey winning after a lifetime of trying. In 2009 it was Mine That Bird, the impossible long shot out of New Mexico. Five years before that it was Smarty Jones and his fairytale story. The 2003 winner, Funny Cide, was owned by childhood friends from a little town in upstate New York who rode to the race in a school bus.

This Kentucky Derby Day was a time to forget about the Asmussen story, the empty grandstands at so many racetracks, the many drug controversies, Churchill Downs raking the customer by raising the takeout, the ugliness and sadness of horses breaking down. It was a day to feel good and enjoy a great race and a sport that still has so many good things going for it.

Thanks, California Chrome.