Herb Benham

Monday, May 05 2014 04:19 PM

HERB BENHAM: Derby winner's ties even closer to home

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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    By Christina Melton/ Special to The Californian

    Bailey, Tony and Savannah Melton were on hand outside the Kentucky Derby. They are relatives of the owner of California Chrome.

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    By AP Photo/David J. Phillip

    Victor Espinoza rides California Chrome to a victory during the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 3, 2014, in Louisville, Ky.

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    May 3, 2014 - Lexington, KY, USA - Owner Steve Coburn hands out roses as he left the winner's circle after his horse, California Chrome with Victor Espinoza up, won the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, May 3, 2014.

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By Herb Benham

California Chrome made a lot of people happy. Race fans, Californians and Anthony, the man who sits a few feet away from me at work.

"Did you watch the race?" he asked.

I told him yes -- not live but I YouTubed it later and was impressed how the horse had maintained contact through the final turn and then sprinted away from the field to win the Kentucky Derby. California Chrome reminded me of the late cyclist Norm Hoffman, who used to humor the pack by staying with them until the last third of the ride; then he would separate, and make it stick.

"Did you know that the horse has a Lamont connection?" Anthony said.

I did. One of the horse's owners is from Lamont.

"Did you know that she is Christina Melton's mother?" he said.

I didn't. Christina worked at The Californian until a few weeks ago. Saturday she was at Churchill Downs watching California Chrome dust off the field. (Her mother and stepfather, Carolyn and Steve Coburn, own the horse with Perry Martin.)

"It was unbelievable," said Christina, when I reached her by phone. "When he was getting into the gate, I wanted to throw up and cry at the same time."

Christina, her husband, Tony, and their two daughters, Bailey and Savannah, were in the owners' boxes along with her parents and 19 other owners.

"California Chrome was in a great position -- third most of the way -- so we felt good about the race," Christina said. "Once he made his move on the final turn, we knew he was going to win."

What a great story. Christina's folks lived in Bakersfield until 19 years ago, when they moved to Lake Topaz, Nev. California Chrome was born in Coalinga, at Harris Ranch.

"When the horse was born three years ago, we went to Harris Ranch to see it," Christina said. "My stepdad said then, 'This horse is going to be something. I have a gut feeling about him.'"

When California Chrome crossed the line, Christina screamed louder and higher than she had ever screamed before.

The other owners congratulated the family, who was hustled to the winner's circle and then the press conference. Each member of the family was assigned a Kentucky state trooper.

In five successive victories, California Chrome has won more than $3 million, money that will pale next to the stud fees that he probably will command.

Two weeks from now, the pride of Coalinga will run in the Preakness. Then June 7, the Belmont Stakes. Christina and her family will be there. How much fun is that? For all of us.

***

A response from Larry Dunn on the column about turning 60. Dear Herb:

"My condolences, old boy.

"It gets worse. Your ego will take a beating. I outweigh you by 13 years, and I know.

"The other day, I lost a ping pong game rather badly. I felt grateful that I managed to do as well as I did.

"At the end of the game, my 87-year-old opponent announced that he had to leave. An early lunch, and then he was off to his thrice-weekly dialysis treatment."

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 395-7279 or hbenham@ bakersfield.com. His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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