Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
The inspiring story of California Chrome that feels more like a fairy tale opened when first-time breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin purchased Love the Chase for $8,000. The mare was slightly built and not much to behold, especially when she ran. She had won once in six career starts.
A groom thought so little of their decision to buy Love the Chase that he was overheard ridiculing it as a “dumb ass” move. Their stable name – Dumb Ass Partners – was born.
Coburn and Martin were intrigued by Love the Chase’s bloodlines, and time proved them to be astute. But Lady Luck also played a huge role in Chrome’s birth. They initially sent Love the Chase to a stallion named Redattore. When that mating proved to be unsuccessful, they paid a mere $2,000 for the services of Lucky Pulpit, an unpromising sire that experienced breathing difficulties in losing all but three of 22 career starts.
Chrome’s delivery was so difficult that Love the Chase required extensive medical attention afterward. As a result, her foal was handled much more than is typical. Many believe that led the California-bred chestnut with the striking white markings known as “chrome” to cope with various stresses better than most and to be extremely responsive to his rider.
“We’ve been all over the world with him,” said trainer Art Sherman, who retired in December 2021. “If he didn’t have that temperament, we couldn’t do what we did.”
Sherman learned at a young age about the demeanor a champion must have. He rode the rails as a teenager from the West Coast to Louisville with Swaps en route to that colt’s triumph in the 1955 Kentucky Derby.
Sherman thought Chrome had the chance to be special. But the magic did not happen until Victor Espinoza, a former Mexico City bus driver, became the colt’s regular rider. They proved to be a nearly unstoppable tandem.
Sherman, who went on to a solid career as a jockey before building his own racing operation in 1979, emerged as the oldest trainer to saddle a Kentucky Derby winner. He was 77 when Chrome allowed him to smell the roses in 2014. They added the Preakness as well in bringing home the first of two Horse of the Year titles that season.
Although Chrome was winless in two starts in a problem-filled 4-year-old campaign, he rebounded to stitch together a powerhouse season at 5. He overwhelmed a star-studded field in the $10 million Dubai World Cup and went on to sweep every start but one, when the brilliant Arrogate overtook him in the final strides of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He banked more than $8 million in purse earnings in 2016.
Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., which initially stood Chrome at stud, said of the two-time Horse of the Year, “He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a machine in a horse.”
Alas, Chrome did not provide the fairy tale ending that his legion of fans known as “Chromies” yearned for. He appeared to slightly injure himself when he faltered in ninth in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup in his finale.
Yet that hardly diminished California Chrome's luster. He won 16 of 27 starts with four second-place finishes and one third-place showing. He ranks as the fourth highest-earning North America-based racehorse in history, banking $14,752,650.
He reminded everyone of the enduring beauty of racing, where gold cannot buy glory.
“People told me we’ve done so much for the breeding end of it,” Sherman said. “You don’t have to be a billionaire, a millionaire, to come up with a good horse. He’s a $10,000 investment that turned into $14.5 million. That gives everybody that incentive to breed their horses and hope maybe they can get a California Chrome.”
For decades, Sherman thought he would never know what it is like to train a horse with immense talent and the makeup to match. Then Chrome arrived with his white feet and that striking white blaze on his nose.
“I have a trophy room full of trophies from around the world, things you think you’re never going to get,” said Sherman, still working to wrap his arms around a fairy tale come true.
Note: This story was originally published in March 2017 and has been updated.
- Alberto Delgado rode Chrome for five of his first six races before being replaced by Victor Espinoza, who became his regular rider.
- Delgado’s brother, Willie, served as Chrome’s exercise rider for much of his career.
- Chrome gave Art Sherman his first Grade 1 victory when he took the Santa Anita Derby.
- Chrome was only the fourth California-bred, and the first since 1962, to win the Kentucky Derby.
- JS Company reached an agreement with the California Chrome syndicate in November 2019 to purchase Chome and moved him to Arrow Stud in Japan to stand, beginning in 2020.
- California Chrome is part of the 2023 Hall of Fame class and will take his place in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023 at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.