Douglas horse is Derby favorite

California Chrome from Douglas County is the pre-race favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

California Chrome from Douglas County is the pre-race favorite for the 140th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

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

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 in the 140th Kentucky Derby.

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 comes in as a 5/2 favorite for the 1-1/4-mile race. The race is scheduled to start at 3:24 p.m. (PPT) and will be televised on NBC.

“It’s been a dream come true,” Steve 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).

Douglas County lost some of its local flavor to the Derby this week when Hoppertunity was scratched. Hoppertunity is 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 having two locally owned horses qualify for the derby. “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, who drew the No. 5 post on Wednesday, is riding an impressive four-race win streak and leads in the qualifying points. Hoppertunity, who drew the 11th post and was listed as a 6/1 favorite, was scratched from the race because of a problem with his left front foot, trainer Bob Baffert announced Thursday morning.

Another horse co-owned by Pegram, Midnight Hawk, was listed No. 14 in points, but is not running the derby.

California Chrome, a chestnut colored colt with four white stockings, has won six of his 10 starts (all in California), 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 over 1-1/8 miles.

■ 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.”

California Chrome has an impressive team with jockey 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 Saturday.

“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 arrived in Louisville on April 21 and California Chrome on April 29. In addition to his second-place at Santa Anita, Hoppertunity ran to victory at the Rebel Stakes on March 15 at Oaklawn Park.

“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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