LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When the bugler blew the call to the post for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby and the crowd at Churchill Downs roared, the tiny, frail lady slowly rose from her wheelchair to her slippered feet. A white sweater covered her thin shoulders, and atop that she wore her son's suit coat. An oxygen bottle was in the undercarriage of the wheelchair.
After being driven to Louisville from Michigan and enduring the mob scene of Derby Day, the moment 83-year-old Katherine Martin was waiting for had finally arrived. She was going to watch from the rail – just inches off the track – her son's colt try to win the biggest horse race in the world.
When the No. 5 horse emerged from the paddock tunnel onto the track for the post parade, Katherine pointed at California Chrome and turned to her son, Perry. The burly co-owner of the Derby favorite nodded but said nothing.
Minutes later, after 19 horses broke from the starting gate in search of equine immortality, Katherine watched them thunder by with her fingers crossed and pressed against her lips. She kept her eyes fixed on the giant video board as the race unfolded with California Chrome sitting in the garden spot, just off the lead along the backstretch. As the colt edged up alongside the pace setters in the far turn, Perry switched from stoic to enthusiastic. He clapped two meaty hands together, sensing what was coming next. As California Chrome surged toward the stretch and took the lead, Perry opened his mouth for the first time in a long time.
"Goodbye, everybody!" he exulted. "Goodbye!"
As California Chrome opened daylight on the pack, Katherine didn't quite know what to do. She put her hands in the air, then tapped her fingers on top of her white hat in silent delight.
Perry didn't even see the last sixteenth of a mile. He was hugging his mom and blinking back tears.
I asked him a few minutes later what it felt like to watch with his mom this incredible, feel-good, multi-layered miracle unfold. Tears welled up, and no words came out.
Perry Martin simply nodded his head and patted Katherine's shoulder.
Martin is the silent partner in California Chrome's working-class ownership arrangement. He didn't even attend the post-race press conference, leaving gregarious Steve Coburn to do the talking.
But the two men were equal dreamers when it came to this horse. Financial and stylistic opposites of the thoroughbred power brokers, they came together to form Dumb Ass Partners, and their racing silks have a donkey on them. They had each paid $4,000 to purchase the mare Love the Chase, then another $2,000 to breed her to Lucky Pulpit. The first foal was California Chrome, which is a breeding fantasy come true.
In March, Dumb Ass Partners turned down what Coburn says was a $6 million offer for 51 percent interest in their colt. Could they use the money? Absolutely. But the decision wasn't a hard one.
"The answer wasn't just no," Coburn said Thursday. "It was hell no. … What price do you put on a dream that's coming true?"
If they sold, the horse would no longer race in DAP silks. And California Chrome undoubtedly would be relocated to another barn, robbing 77-year-old small-time trainer Art Sherman of the best horse he's ever had.
They stood by Art. And Saturday he became the oldest trainer to ever win the Kentucky Derby.
"This has to be the sweetest moment of my life," Sherman said. "To be my age and have something like this happen, what can you say?"
Someone asked Sherman if this will change his life.
"I'm just the same old Art Sherman," he said.
"Except I won the Kentucky Derby."
Fifty-nine years ago Sherman had come to the Derby as the exercise rider for Swaps, a great California-based horse who won the 1955 run for the roses. This week he visited the horse's grave, which is at the Kentucky Derby museum on the grounds at Churchill.
But he also lived it up in Louisville all week. In fact, he was spotted Friday night at a downtown bar, dancing with his wife of 53 years, Faye, to "We Are Family."
This chance will never come again, and Art Sherman knew it. He wasn't going to spend Derby Week in a stress bunker.
But Derby Day lasts an eternity – especially if you are saddling the favorite. The minutes drag by. The tension builds.
About an hour before the race, Alan Sherman leaned over the cinderblock wall at Barn 20 on the Churchill backside. His hands were folded and his head was bowed, a prayerful pose that he held for a long time. Behind him, California Chrome's head stuck out of his stall, looking much more composed.
"I was nervous," Alan admitted later.
Alan is Art Sherman's son and assistant trainer.
"He's my backbone," Art said. "He watches the horse all the time."
As Katherine and Perry Martin were having their touching moment along the rail, Alan Sherman was in the middle of an unrestrained celebration on the track. He watched the race with exercise rider Willie Delgado and groom Raul Rodriguez, and there were flowing tears and hugs between the three men.
"I compare this to my daughter being born," Delgado said. "The two most beautiful things in my life."
Delgado had been on California Chrome's back every morning since the colt arrived in Louisville Monday. The buzz in the Churchill barn area was that Chrome was underwhelming on the track, not looking good in his morning jogs. Speculation ran rampant, as it often does in the lead-up to the Derby.
Delgado says the buzz was bunk.
"There's nothing wrong with this horse," he said. "I let him do what he wants. He can skip, jump, hoppity-do. There's never been anything wrong with this horse."
In fact, Delgado described him as "a beast" Saturday morning when he took him to the track. Bursting with energy and ready to run a huge race.
When they called the Derby horses over for the race, California Chrome emerged from Barn 20 looking very much ready. He was on his toes for the walk over to the paddock, alert and keyed up.
The horse was ready. But jockey Victor Espinoza still had to negotiate the traffic hazards that come with a 19-horse field.
A horse that had not gotten out of the gate well in the past, California Chrome broke alertly this time. Almost too alertly. His speed carried him to the front early, and Espinoza had to decide whether to simply let him go or try to get the horse to relax and let the other speed horses – Chitu and Uncle Sigh – take the lead. When those two loomed up alongside, Espinoza made the decision to settle in behind them.
But the rest of the lead pack loomed up around California Chrome as they headed toward the first turn, creating a moment of tension for Espinoza.
"Now I got trapped a little bit in there," he said. "… I was really a little bit concerned. My heart started going like a hundred miles an hour."
Espinoza managed to guide California Chrome just wide of Chitu's hind end, with the help of Samraat drifting slightly outside. That provided all the running room Espinoza needed going into the turn.
"I was like, 'What a relief. I can breathe, relax, let him stretch his legs,' " Espinoza said.
From there, the race unfolded perfectly. California Chrome came here looking like very much like the best 3-year-old colt in America, which is why he was sent off as the 5-2 favorite – the shortest odds on the Derby favorite in six years. Then he backed it up, pulling away by what looked like four lengths in the stretch before gliding in 1¾ lengths ahead of fast-closing Commanding Curve, a 38-1 long shot.
His winning time was 2 minutes, 3.66 seconds – fairly glacial by Derby standards. It's not the kind of time that puts Chrome among the great Derby champions.
"I don't really care what the track record is," Coburn said. "All I know is my horse won the Kentucky Derby today."
When the winner's circle presentation was over in the infield, two men picked up Katherine Martin's wheelchair to carry her across the track. Back on the bricks of the Churchill paddock, they wheeled her through the flotsam of the day – the broken julep glasses, flattened aluminum beer cans and torn tickets – to the Derby museum. That's the location of the winner's party.
In her left hand she held a single red rose, plucked for her from the garland of roses that are laid across the winning horse's shoulders.
On her face was a small smile.
"It was wonderful, wonderful," she said. "My son won the race."
And the entire sport won with them.
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