LOUISVILLE — The offer was one most owners would have viewed as a game-changing opportunity. Steve Coburn saw it as a slap in the face.
Six million dollars was the deal for a controlling, 51 percent interest in the horse Coburn and partner Perry Martin bred and that Coburn says he first saw in his dreams. That colt would have still taken them to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, but he eventually would be taken away from the venerable trainer who honed him, effectively breaking up a group that has become like kin.
"We've become a family. And the offer we got for this horse was from someone who has never even put on a pair of boots to go to work," Coburn recalled Wednesday. "To me that was kind of an insult because somebody that has that much money that thinks they can step in and buy something people worked so hard to get to ... no was very easy. Not only no, but hell no."
While Coburn and Co. turned down the offer that came in for California Chrome after his win in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, a new price came in for the colt Wednesday, that of the 5-2 odds making him the morning-line favorite in the 20-horse field for Saturday's 140th Kentucky Derby.
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California Chrome will break from the No. 5 post — the same spot his jockey Victor Espinoza won from aboard War Emblem in 2002. Bob Baffert trainee Hoppertunity was installed as the 6-1 second choice after drawing a favorable post No. 11.
"My jock said the last time he won the Derby it was No. 5. That's good enough for me," said Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome. "I think if we break clean, he will still get out of a lot of trouble. He's got a little gas leaving there. This will be perfect."
Of the 21 horses entered for the first leg of the Triple Crown on Wednesday — Pablo Del Monte is the lone also-eligible — California Chrome brings scary-good form and arguably the most fairy-tale laden back story.
Sherman, his 77-year-old trainer, is threatening to overtake Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Baffert as the most popular trainers currently on the Churchill Downs backstretch to come out of Los Alamitos Race Course. Sherman, who used to gallop 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, has endeared himself with tales of his sleeping next to his charge in a train car en route to the Derby 59 years ago as well as his enjoy-the-moment demeanor that has held even as the demands on his time blow up.
"I feel lucky to get up in the morning to pull on my boots," said Sherman, a former jockey who took out his trainer's license in 1980. "It's kind of an exciting time in my life. I always said if I ever came back here (the Kentucky Derby) I wanted a contender. When you've been on the racetrack as long as I have and after riding for 23 years, I wanted to have a horse that I really think had a good shot."
Coburn tells of how he dreamt of his mare Love the Chase having a flashy colt with a bald face two weeks before she foaled the horse they nicknamed "Junior." Sweet and curious as California Chrome is, his early starts were erratic as he finished off the board three times in his first six efforts, including a sixth-place finish in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity.
Since running sixth in the Golden State Juvenile Stakes at Santa Anita last Nov. 1, a switch has come on within California Chrome. When the chestnut runner won the Santa Anita Derby by 51/4 lengths while geared down in the lane on April 5, it marked his fourth consecutive victory by a combined margin of 241/4 lengths.
"I don't think we've hit bottom. It's the way he does things, he does them so easy," said Willie Delgado, exercise rider for California Chrome. "They asked me this morning (about him regressing) and I'm like, yeah, he bounces after every race, he bounces right to the wire and right to his stall.
"Even after the races, he doesn't drink any water. I'm just amazed at what he does. He's the one you look for your whole life, and I'm glad I got the chance to get on him."
California Chrome has shown plenty of tactical run during his four-race win streak, and such speed will be key to launch him away from post No. 5.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Grade II Louisiana Derby winner Vicar's in Trouble drew the dreaded inside post No. 1, which means his front-end speed will have to be called upon if he is to have any chance of avoiding being knocked around going into the first turn.
Hoppertunity, winner of the Grade II Rebel Stakes, by contrast drew a near-perfect spot from which to make his bid to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without having run as a juvenile. Hoppertunity, in No. 11, has speedster Wildcat Red to his inside in post No. 10 and late-running Dance With Fate alongside in the No. 12 slot.
"The only disadvantage is he's going to have to wait in the gate for a long time," Baffert said. "I'd rather wait in the 11-hole than wait in the 1-hole."
Hoppertunity most recently ran second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.
"I think he's second choice because he's gotten the closest to California Chrome this year," Baffert said.
One major contender to get the short end of the draw stick was Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who landed in the outside No. 20 post.
Big Brown overcame that same starting point when he rolled to victory in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, but he's the only Derby winner to do so.
"That's a concern, he'll be behind the gate for a long time," trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. "I'm trying to convince myself that it's not a bad post but I don't know if I can."
Many pundits are already convinced that California Chrome is the one who will ultimately prove the best of his generation. Coburn, for one, is ready to crown him himself.
"With a good break and a clean trip, I think (a win in the Derby) is a done deal," he said "That's my personal opinion. I think it's a done deal."