My Old Kentucky Home

Steve Coburn displays photos of California Chrome, the early favorite to win at the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

Steve Coburn displays photos of California Chrome, the early favorite to win at the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

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Steve Coburn has a little extra incentive as he looks forward to his birthday on May 3.

Just a little, mind you, since the Topaz Lake resident will spend his 61st birthday in Louisville, Ky., and he hopes it turns into a victory celebration at Churchill Downs.

Steve and Carolyn Coburn — along with Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, Calif. — are co-owners of California Chrome, and their 3-year-old colt is expected to come into the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby as the favorite to win.

“It’s been a dream come true,” Coburn said. “And the derby this year happens to fall on my birthday.”

Coburn also points out California Chrome was born Feb. 18 (in Coalinga, Calif.), which was his sister’s birthday. Furthermore, she was 36 years old when she died of cancer, and this year marks 36 years since there was a Triple Crown winner (Affirmed in 1978).

Adding an extra dose of local flavor to the Derby, the field is expected to include Hoppertunity, co-owned by Minden resident Mike Pegram, who is principal owner of the Carson Valley Inn.

“What do you think the odds are of that?” Pegram said about Douglas County’s Derby ties. “When people find out you’re a thoroughbred owner, the first thing they ask is, ‘Have you won the Kentucky Derby?’ I mean, this is the pinnacle of the sport.”

California Chrome is riding an impressive four-race win streak and currently leads in the qualifying points. Hoppertunity was listed No. 7 in the points this week. Another horse co-owned by Pegram, Midnight Hawk, was listed No. 14.

“It looks like we’re going to the dance with Hoppertunity,” Pegram said. “Midnight Hawk has never had a bad race and a lot of people think we should run him, but we feel Hoppertunity will give us our best chance to win.”

California Chrome has won six of his 10 starts, and has been virtually untouchable while winning his last four races by a combined margin of nearly 25 lengths:

■ Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., won by 5-1/4 lengths

■ San Felipe Stakes on March 8 at Santa Anita Park, won by 7-1/4 lengths ahead of Midnight Hawk over 1-1/16 miles in a time of 1:40.59. The race record of 1:40.11 was set in 2005 by Consolidator.

■ California Cup Derby on Jan. 25 at Santa Anita Park, won by 5-1/2 lengths over 1-1/16 miles.

■ King Glorious Stakes on Dec. 22, 2013 — “the last stakes race at Hollywood Park, and he won it,” Coburn points out — winning by 6-1/4 lengths.

By the way, the runner-up finishers in those two most recent races were Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby and Midnight Hawk.

“California Chrome has been very impressive. He’s a beautiful-moving horse,” Pegram said. “We think Steve is rightfully the favorite, but at the same time, we’re very confident about our horse. But if we don’t win, we hope Steve does.”

One plus in Hoppertunity’s favor is Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has three Derby victories and three second-place finishes to his credit over the past 17 years.

“We call him Derby Bob,” Pegram said of Baffert. “He knows what it takes to win that race.”

California Chrome has an impressive team as well. His jockey is Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby aboard War Emblem. And his trainer is 77-year-old veteran Art Sherman.

“He’s in very good hands with our trainer, Art Sherman,” Coburn said.

Sherman mixed optimism with caution when he spoke to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre in a recent interview.

“My horse has that something special, that look of a real runner,” Sherman said in a column that published in the Times on April 2, “and he has changed so much recently, grown up and filled out, that he doesn’t even look like the same horse.”

Coburn believes the best of California Chrome is still to come.

“He has not begun to peak yet,” Coburn said. “He’s slowly going forward, doing his job. And he loves his job. He loves to run.”

Pegram and Coburn are more than aware there is still a long way to go before May 3.

“It could be something as simple as a stone bruise, or the horse gets a cough, and you’re out,” Pegram said. “I’ve gone to Derby as the favorite and I’ve gone as the underdog, and I’ll tell you, it’s a helluva lot more exciting going as the underdog.”

Hoppertunity is due to arrive in Louisville on Monday and California Chrome on April 29.

“It is a media storm,” Pegram said. “When he hits there, (as the favorite) he’s going to see things he never imagined. With all the media pressure on your time, you really don’t get a chance to relax.”

Ah, but the excitement of being at Churchill Downs on Derby Day is another story entirely.

“When those horses turn for the homestretch, believe me, it’s a thrill,” Pegram said. “The whole weekend is a thrill. That’s why they call it the most exciting two minutes in sports.”


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