LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Steve Coburn is either crazy or awesome.
Or perhaps awesomely crazy.
He is the co-owner, along with Perry Martin, of Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome. They call their operation Dumb Ass Partners.
And that they may be, because they say they've turned down millions of dollars in offers for California Chrome – including a $6 million offer two months ago. And they've turned down what they say was a $2 million offer for his mare, the previously unheralded Love the Chase. And even a million dollars for another one of her foals, who is a full sister to the Derby favorite.
But they're laudable Dumb Asses. They're not rich men by thoroughbred racing standards. By their account, they've been offered life-changing money. Yet they've refused all offers in order to keep the California Chrome team intact.
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The reported $6 million offer for the colt, from an undisclosed buyer, came after he won the San Felipe Stakes on March 9. The first offer was for total ownership. The second offer was for 51 percent ownership.
Coburn, a 60-year-old Army vet who has a regular-Joe job in Gardnerville, Nev., at JCP Enterprises – he operates a press that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and driver licenses – was rather salty in discussing that offer Wednesday.
"The answer wasn't just no, it was hell no," Coburn said. "… We thought about it for about 30 seconds. [The prospective new owners] would be getting all the glory and not having put a dollar into the work.
"This guy who made us this offer, he has people wash his feet for him. … [The offer] came from somebody who never even put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning.
"It was kind of an insult to me."
Consider the insult returned in kind.
In addition to not liking the spirit behind the offer, Coburn didn't want to give up what has been the ride of a lifetime. If he and Martin surrendered controlling interest in California Chrome, the horse would not race in the DAP Racing silks, which feature an image of a donkey. And beloved 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman undoubtedly would be replaced.
"We said, 'We can't do this to Art,'" Coburn said. "This is a team. We've become a family."
The partners each put up $4,000 to buy Love the Chase, a pittance. Their first attempt at a homebred turned out to be California Chrome, which is like a golfer winning the Masters in his first tournament.
Coburn was in the stall with the foal the day after he was born three years ago, and started feeding the animal horse cookies when he was three months old. So you can understand the affectionate bond.
The risk, of course, is that California Chrome will be beaten Saturday. That would dramatically decrease his value as a stallion, and those seven-figure offers would stop rolling in.
Chrome hasn't lost since last November and brings a dominant four-race winning streak to Churchill Downs – but the competition in California has not been highly regarded this year, and in a 20-horse field anything can happen. And usually does.
Being the favorite here is no cinch. Just a few of them have won the Derby in the last 20-plus years.
Unless you're Steve Coburn. He guaranteed victory a couple of weeks ago and backed it up here Wednesday.
"With a good break and a clean trip," he said, "I think it's a done deal."
When it comes to California Chrome, Coburn sees nothing but sunshine and success. While breeding experts are blasé about the colt's bloodlines, Coburn will rattle off an ancestry that has 1955 Derby winner Swaps on both the sire and dam's pedigree charts. That's a sign, he believes, because Sherman first came to the Derby in '55 as an exercise rider and stable boy for Swaps.
The fact that Coburn turns 61 on Saturday? That's a sign, too.
"I always had a feeling this horse is going to do something special," he said. "I can feel it. Just a solid feeling, like you get in your chest? It wasn't gas or anything."
When you get a feeling like that, you go with it. And when you're a regular guy who latches on to the horse of a lifetime, you turn down millions and ride the moment.
As Coburn said: "What's the price you can put on a dream that's coming true?"
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