BY TONY LACAVA Californian sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Coburn is no stranger to horses, having spent a good portion of his life working as a modern-day cowboy.
His wife Carolyn, even before they met in 1992, had an interest in horses as well, only as a bettor.
Born: 2011, Harris Farms in Coalinga
Owners: DAP Racing (co-owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Minden Gardnerville, Nev., formerly of Bakersfield); and Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City)
Trainer: Art Sherman
Jockey: Victor Sanchez
Wins: 7 (5 consecutive)
Next race: Preakness Race Course, Baltimore, May 17
Now Steve and Carolyn, who both spent a good portion of their lives in Kern County, are being taken on the ride of their lives by their three-year-old colt we all now know as California Chrome.
On May 3, Chrome became the first California-bred horse in 52 years to win the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of horse racing's coveted Triple Crown. Next up is the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, followed by the Belmont Stakes June 7 at Belmont, N.Y.
No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, but that's just another number when you consider what the 3-year-old thoroughbred has already done.
The extraordinary story of California Chrome, and of the Coburns, who share ownership of the horse with Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, is all about beating the odds.
"It's been an incredible journey that we've been on," said Steve Coburn, 61, who moved to Bakersfield from the Eastern Sierra town of Big Pine in 1969 and graduated from Foothill High in 1972.
"To see this baby, the day after he was born, alive ... to watch this colt come up and grow and develop and develop the mind he has, and run, just run because he loves to run, loves the competition, to see all this happen for my partner Perry Martin and our wives and our families, to see this dream come true, that we have put so much blood, sweat and tears, our savings, our retirement into this horse, and to to see this horse win the Kentucky Derby, I have no words."
Carolyn, 63, who attended Vineland and Sunset schools in Lamont before graduating from Arvin High in 1972 (as Carolyn White), said her cell phone has been abuzz since Chrome started winning big races before the Derby.
"The thing that is so wonderful is being able to share this experience with so many people," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Gardnerville, Nev., near Lake Tahoe. "It's such a joy for us to be able to share his growing up. So many people have been part of his growing up, we're so blessed we have this horse and he's such a people's horse. He loves people."
Much of their story took place in Kern County, long before Chrome took his first awkward steps.
Steve was a cowboy with the Tejon Ranch Co. after graduating from Foothill, and later worked at the Texaco refinery on Rosedale Highway for 14 years. Carolyn was employed locally for 18 years in the healthcare profession and several more years in accounting. They met in 1992, were married in 1994 on Catalina Island, and moved to Gardnerville, Nev., near Lake Tahoe, that same year.
Coburn is a press operator for JCP enterprises, which applies magnetic tape to plastic, such as on credit cards.
They come to Bakersfield "every chance" they get, Steve said, to visit family. They have five children between them, and eight grandchildren. Coburn's mother Frankie, 93, also resides in Bakersfield.
Getting into the game
"This has been a long, hard road," Steve Coburn said. "But we have been blessed with this colt."
Carolyn said they were simply looking for a tax writeoff in 2009 when they purchased a 5-percent interest in a $30,000 yearling called Love The Chase with a horse ownership group called Blinkers On Racing Stable.
The filly raced three times and did not win, and Blinkers On, which had "lost faith," Carolyn said, was looking to sell her for the relatively paltry sum of $2,500. At this time, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who was also part of Blinkers On, still had good vibes for Love The Chase, and decided to team up and buy it from the group. But when Love The Chase won its next race, the price jumped to $8,000.
The price increase didn't deter the two, and they proceeded with the purchase.
"We shook hands, and not one legal piece of paper was signed," Steve said of the tight-knit partnership with the Martins, which is called DAP Racing.
Their venture wasn't an instant success.
"We bought her with intention of breeding her but still wanted to see what she could do as race horse," Carolyn said of Love The Chase. "We ran her two times, and she ran last both times. So we retired her, and sent her to Harris Farms (in Coalinga, about 80 miles north of Bakersfield on I-5), and tried to breed her."
The first attempt to breed Love The Chase was unsuccessful. They tried again a year later, to a different sire, Lucky Pulpit, and it was a success. The result on Feb. 18, 2011 was a handsome, 137-pound, chestnut-colored foal with white markings, which are known by horse racing enthusiasts as "chrome."
Thus, the moniker.
The Coburns and Martins are a tight-knit group.
"Nothing is done without the four of us talking it over," Carolyn said. "It's a true partnership. We respect each other and nothing is done without the other's knowledge."
Officially, they are known as DAP Racing, and the DAP -- an acronym for "Dumb Ass Partners" is a story in itself.
"We went and saw (Love The Chase) after we bought her, and somebody said 'you guys are real dumb asses if you buy this filly and race her,'" Steve Coburn recalled last week in an interview on the Jim Rome Show. "So Perry looked at me and said, 'I guess we're dumb asses, partner!' That's how the name came about."
And the know-it-all in the stables who used that phrase couldn't have been more wrong.
The Coburn-Martin investment in Love The Chase was like pennies on the dollar compared to the money spent on most other Derby-caliber horses.
"We've got an $8,000 mare, bred to a $2,000 sire that's given us a multi-million dollar colt," Coburn told Jim Rome. "Now, I mean, ya talk about dreams coming true! It's astronomical!"
"I live in Nevada, where they make odds. I don't think anyone could have made odds this high to happen."
Letting it sink in
Life, in general, has been a whirlwind for the Coburns since the Derby win.
Steve actually made it back to work for a few days this week, mixing in interviews with local and national media, all the while trying to plan the next leg of their journey: Saturday's Preakness.
Steve, the spokesman for the group, said in a telephone interview from Lexington, Ky., on Monday that reality has set in.
"I have known, along with my partner, Perry Martin, that this colt was going to do something special. We didn't know how special it was, but my partner had planned out a racing program for this horse. This horse has fulfilled all the steps we have planned out for him, thanks to the Harris Ranch horse division, and Art Sherman, our trainer.
"It has been a picture-perfect ride to this point."
He said he was simply in awe in his box watching history unfold at the Derby.
"I was just emotionally filled with pride, I really was. I cried. I was nervous when they put (California Chrome) in the gate. When they lock them in the gate, it's the most dangerous time for a horse, a very tense moment. I was just emotionally filled with pride of what Martin and myself had done to breed this mare and get this absolutely gorgeous colt -- this colt is a gift -- and for him to do do what he has done, it is indescribable.
"I can not describe the feelings I had, other than inner pride. I can not describe my emotions."
Building a foundation
In two seasons of racing, California Chrome has raced 11 times and won seven, including the last five in succession under jockey Victor Espinoza.
The two victories preceding the Derby were doozies.
March 8, Chrome won the $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park and by that time had earned enough points to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
"But this horse has such a big heart, and loves to run, and we knew we couldn't lay him off eight weeks (until the Kentucky Derby)," said Carolyn. "So we entered him in the ($1 million April 5) Santa Anita Derby, for work ... and he ran off with that one, too.
"We needed that extra race."
The Coburns and Martins declined a $6 million offer, following the San Felipe win, to sell 51 percent of California Chrome.
"It wasn't tough for us to say no, because we knew within our souls what kind of horse we have," Steve Coburn said, "because we've seen him grow up, we've seen him achieve these things, we've seen him get hit across the nose and lose a race by only 2 lengths, we've seen him jump the gate and still only lose the race by two lengths. He had all that heart. We knew we had something special from Day One, but he showed us really how special he was when he started moving up at these different races.
"And when everbody said after he won the San Felipe stakes that it was a fluke, well, then he turned around in four weeks and kicked the hell outa them at the Santa Anita Derby.
"It wasn't a fluke."