LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Steve Coburn proudly calls himself a working man, and he'll tell you upfront that he was insulted when a rich stable owner offered him millions of dollars for the racehorse who'd eaten cookies from his hand as a gangly 3-month-old.
"Somebody who's got that much money, just to think they can step in and buy something people have worked so hard to get to?" Coburn said. "To me, that was a slap in the face. The no was easy. Not just 'no,' but 'hell no.'"
It might seem strange, the idea of a populist hero as clear favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, a race that fires the dreams of multi-millionaire horsemen around the world. But that's California Chrome. His owners, Coburn and Perry Martin, are racing novices who spent a grand total of $10,000 to breed their champion. His trainer, Art Sherman, last saw Churchill Downs as an 18-year-old stable hand and never expected to make it back.
They've spent a giddy week telling their colt's story to anyone who asks — how Coburn and Martin met when they bought California Chrome's mother, an untalented Maryland-bred racer named Love the Chase, how Sherman thought the men were a touch nuts when they told him the young thoroughbred had a brilliant future.
Thousands of longshot tales bubble up every year in this game, and almost none of them end anywhere near the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby. Yet here they are with the one horse that consistently blew away his competition in the spring prep races.
"It's become like a fairy tale come true," said Coburn, who will turn 61 on Derby day. "It really, really has. It's quite an amazing deal."
Some top trainers will admit they'd never feel complete without a Derby win. But Sherman, 77, isn't among them. All week, he's laughed with well wishers, telling them how fortunate he feels at this late-career gift. Given his short, sturdy build, it's not hard to picture him as the jockey he was for 23 years.
"I'm very satisfied with my career," he said. "I never made it to what you'd say are the big, big horses, but I won a lot of graded stakes, always won my share and had a lot of fun."
Sherman last came to Kentucky in 1955 as an 18-year-old working the barn for the great California horse Swaps. He had caught the racing bug a few years earlier, listening to the men call in bets from his father's barber shop.
"Everything was overwhelming to me," he recalled. "I'd never been out of California. We took the horse off the van into the barn area and I'm seeing all the people around. … It was an awesome experience."
He watched Swaps charge to victory from a perch on the backside, never making it to the winner's circle.
Sherman became a jockey, always successful but a bit under the national radar. He repeated the pattern as a trainer, accumulating more than 2,000 wins from his California stable but never producing a Triple Crown star.
He won't lie to you and say he knew California Chrome was the one. But he liked the chestnut colt from early on, finding him both amiable and quick to learn.
"He was just a baby, and yet he was more focused than a lot of the 2-year-olds," Sherman said.
Coburn had seen the same qualities from the time Love the Chase gave birth. He and Martin had paid a $2,000 stud fee to pair her with a stallion named Lucky Pulpit. It seemed a humble blend on the surface, but the men based their hopes on the great horses — Swaps, Seattle Slew, Secretariat — in California Chrome's more distant ancestry.
Coburn, who makes his living manufacturing the magnetic strips on credit cards, calls the Derby favorite "Junior."
"He was just very curious," Coburn recalled. "I'd walk up and I'd pet him. I've been feeding him the Mrs. Pastures horse cookies since he was 3-months old. So we've been interacting since he was a baby."
He and Martin gave the horse to Sherman because they wanted an old-school trainer who would give him plenty of individual attention.
California Chrome's poise has been on display all week at Churchill Downs. He likes to stop for a moment and take in the scene, apparently unperturbed by the photographers and patrons clicking cameras all around him.
"It's like I've been saying, he's almost half-human," said his exercise rider, Willy Delgado. "He just likes to take it all in."