Commentary

The meek inherit Derby glory

One need not be a king to find himself in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle

Updated: May 4, 2014, 12:04 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Some of the partners wanted out; they wanted the bills to stop falling onto their desks and staining their lives, like something from a leaky roof. And so they offered to sell Love The Chase to anybody silly enough to buy her; even her groom recognized the folly of such an investment, saying, "Anybody who buys that horse is a dumb ass."

Steve Colburn and Perry Martin bought her, and so they're the Dumb Ass Partners that own the winner of the 140th Kentucky Derby, California Chrome.

Owners Steven Coburn, right, and Perry Martin celebrate in the Churchill Downs winner's circle after their California Chrome won the 140th Kentucky Derby.
AP Photo/Garry JonesCoburn, right, and Martin have no interest in selling any portion of their dream in California Chrome.
He's the first foal and only son of Love The Chase, a mare who, the evidence insists, probably didn't want to be a racehorse. Maybe she had scholarly or artistic aspirations, and maybe she just didn't care to hurry, but she wasn't much of a racehorse. She won only once in six starts, and that at the lowliest of levels; she finished far back in the final race of her career while competing for a claiming price of $12,500. In other words, she was to racing what Charles Barkley is to golf.

But Colburn and Martin had faith -- which is essential in this game. Does any other sport have such a capacity for engendering faith and inspiring dreams? Probably not. Anyway, the DAP (Dumb Ass Partners, as they call themselves) bought Love The Chase to be a broodmare, which was basically their only option since she had no future in racing. And that decision -- or rather that coupled with California Chrome's victory Saturday -- is why horse racing is the greatest of sports, or it's one of the reasons.

No other sport is so democratic, no other game is so accessible as horse racing. You might have heard that it's the Sport of Kings. Forget it; that's flapdoodle. Horse racing is the sport of plebian dreamers who approach it in cowboy hats and hard hats and Panama fedoras and who always lay their hopes and wishes at its altar. It's the sport of Dumb Ass Partners.

For very little money, these guys bought a mare who couldn't outrun a nose, bred her to an unheralded stallion for less and then dared to dream that the result would win the most famous of races. Before coming here, they even turned down an offer of more than $6 million for him -- or for a majority interest in him. Are these guys nuts? No, they're just horse owners, aka Dumb Ass Partners, who won't let go of their dreams.

And on Saturday at Churchill Downs, before a throng of more than 160,000, their California Chrome grabbed the most coveted ring in the sport, the Kentucky Derby. In doing that, he pushed his earnings beyond $2.55 million.

You want to buy the Clippers from the reprehensible Donald Sterling? Well, they'll cost you about $700 million, or maybe $800 million, but you better have a cool billion just in case. You want to own an NFL team or a Major League Baseball team? Well, the zeroes in your bankroll better line up like the Cowboys' cheerleaders and do the hoochie coochie.

But you can buy a racehorse, or a broodmare, which is really the purchase of a dream, for a few thousand bucks and a ham sandwich. Of course, then you'll have to pay $2,000 to breed the mare to Lucky Pulpit. But then you just might win the Kentucky Derby.

Horse racing is the only world where such things can happen that isn't computer-generated. That's why horse racing is the greatest of sports. With a blue-collar trainer, Art Sherman, who rode in a boxcar when he first came here to Churchill Downs in 1955 with the great Swaps, and owners who know that dreams never depreciate, California Chrome opened up five lengths in midstretch and then held on to win by 1¾ lengths over Commanding Curve, with Danza third.

The Sport of Kings? When kings win, they brandish their swords as emblems of their might and power. When kings win they proclaim their glory. But after the 140th Derby, these winners struggled to communicate how humbled they felt and how blessed by it all.

Winning jockey Victor Espinoza, explaining how fortunate he felt and how liberated, became tearful when he spoke about the kids diagnosed with cancer at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles.

"I'm just the same old Art Sherman," Sherman said when meeting with media and well-wishers after the race, and then he paused to add, "except I've won the Kentucky Derby."

And winning jockey Victor Espinoza, explaining how fortunate he felt and how liberated, became tearful when he spoke about the kids diagnosed with cancer at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles. Espinoza donates 10 percent of his earnings to them.

Even though California Chrome was the 5-2 favorite, his was a strange Derby victory; but, for all that, it was a beautiful one. The winning connections were overwhelmed by their good fortune and by their blessings and, most of all, by their horse. In awe of California Chrome, the Dumb Ass Partners probably wouldn't have traded him for the Clippers.

The time for analysis will come later -- the race, yes, was slow (2:03.66 for the 1¼ miles, with the winner running the final quarter-mile in 26.21 seconds), and the competition in retrospect probably modest. But until then, perhaps we, like the connections of California Chrome, can be grateful for a singular and beautiful moment Saturday afternoon that reminded the world that this is the greatest and most democratic of sports.

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