How California Chrome's owners beat a million-dollar system with $8,000

Pat Forde

For Love the Chase, the end came on April 1, 2009.

It was the last time the 4-year-old mare was sent out to do a job she clearly hated: racing. Going a mile against uninspiring competition in the sixth race that day at Golden Gate Fields in the Bay Area, Love the Chase willingly gave up the fight after a few furlongs and dawdled home last in a field of eight, beaten by 13½ lengths.

Less than two months earlier, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn had purchased the mare for $8,000. Now, after just two races – both last-place finishes – their $8,000 investment would be retired from racing.

The men had named their new ownership group Dumb Ass Partners, after hearing a groom refer to anyone who bought Love the Chase as "a dumb ass." At that point, the name certainly seemed to fit.

Lucky Pulpit's racing career had ended about 2½ years earlier. He was injured after his only start at age 5, a second-place finish in an August race at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Lucky Pulpit won three out of 22 lifetime races, losing his last seven straight. He'd briefly been on the Kentucky Derby trail as a 3-year-old colt, but resounding losses in a pair of California prep races ended those thoughts and a breathing problem relegated him to sprint races. Unimpressed Kentucky breeding operations passed on Lucky Pulpit, and he was sent to do his stallion work at Harris Farms in California for the bargain-bin stud fee of $2,500.

Steven Coburn, right, and Perry Martin hold the trophy after California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby. (AP)
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Steven Coburn, right, and Perry Martin hold the trophy after California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby. (AP)

Yet somehow, when these two ordinary race horses came together in the breeding shed in 2010, magic happened.

They produced California Chrome.

The dominant winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is one win away from capturing the elusive Triple Crown – Chrome will break from the No. 2 post in Saturday's Belmont Stakes and is an early 3-5 favorite – and joining 11 other horses in an ancient sport's most select club.

"Right now he looks like a freak," said Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte. "He probably can do things beyond his breeding."

While it seems like the ultimate April Fool's Day joke that a mare as slow and skittish as Love the Chase would give birth to the shining light of thoroughbred racing, it really happened. And while Lucky Pulpit seemed completely unqualified for the task of siring a superstar, he somehow did.

"When you normally look at a mating like that, you don't expect much," said Sid Fernando, who is president of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc. "You expect him to be a claimer."

(Claiming races are the bottom tier of the horse racing hierarchy.)

But Fernando and other pedigree experts capable of knowledgably excavating decades back into California Chrome's bloodlines find a lot to like. While his mother and father might not have been much on the race track, the extended family heritage indicates that the ability was there all along, tucked away farther back in the gene pool and waiting to be brought out. Chrome has a family tree only could love, but it's working for him.

"I have no issue with his pedigree whatsoever," said Steve Roman, curator of the website and creator of the Dosage Index, a tool for classifying thoroughbred pedigrees. "I'm not saying I would have picked him to win the Kentucky Derby last winter, but you can understand how it happened."

To understand how it happened is to step into the esoteric breeding world – a place where huge sums of money are invested by some of the richest people in the world in an attempt to produce racing champions. The breeding vernacular is almost a language unto its own. In discussing California Chrome's pedigree, the terms "blue-hen mare," "nicks," "outcross sire" and "hybrid vigor" all come forth. But in plain English, the consensus seems to be that either by luck or careful planning, Martin and Coburn created a low-budget coupling with all the needed features to produce a regal champion.

"Knowingly or not, they've done everything right in the limited environment they were working with," Fernando said.

Martin told NBC he spent months versing himself on breeding, and the current results make him look like a genius. But the increasingly reclusive Californian declined comment when reached by Yahoo Sports recently to talk about the Love the Chase-Lucky Pulpit coupling.

What Martin won't say, others will.

Fernando takes it all the way back to the lineage of Betty Derr – the previously mentioned "blue-hen mare" who was born in 1928 and begat a long line of girl power in the breeding shed and on the race track. Fernando and Roman made a big deal out of the fact that a former champion juvenile filly named Numbered Account is present in two places in Love the Chase's bloodlines – making her "intensely inbred" in the pedigree nomenclature. Numbered Account was one tough mother on the track and as a dam, producing plenty of runners with notable stamina.

And that is a key: If you want to win classic races of longer distances like the Derby (1¼ miles), the Preakness (1 3/16) and the Belmont (1½), your horse generally must be bred for staying power.

"There is a reinforcement of stamina from Numbered Account," Roman said. "There's a hell of a lot of stamina within the dam to indicate why he's doing what he's doing at classic distances."

Exercise rider Willie Delgado plays with California Chrome. (AP)
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Exercise rider Willie Delgado plays with California Chrome. (AP)

Lucky Pulpit brings some rich blood to the equation as well. His granddad was A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year who may have won the Derby that year if not scratched because of a minor injury the day of the race. He has sired a succession of studs. A.P. Indy's father was Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown. And the immortal Secretariat is one more generation back in the ancestry.

"It's like a Who's Who," Fernando said. "Heavy stamina sires stacked on top of each other."

But the underappreciated link on that side may be California Chrome's grandsire, Pulpit. Although deceased for two years, Pulpit's progeny are proving to be prolific sires in their own right. Tapit is the leading North American sire in terms of 2014 earnings, at $5.7 million. Lucky Pulpit is third at $3.7 million – nearly all of which has been earned by California Chrome.

By winter, California Chrome's success had led to Lucky Pulpit's stud fee quadrupling to $10,000 – and that was before Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness in breathtaking fashion. By the next mating season, his fee will have risen some more.

And if California Chrome becomes the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, his slow mom and short-winded dad will improbably be the premier power couple in thoroughbred breeding. Those laggardly finishes in cheap races at offbeat tracks will be ancient history for newfound breeding royalty.