Benoit Photo / AP
Friday, May 2, 2014 | 2:28 p.m.
RENO — Horse racing is a sport filled with blue bloods.
An up-and-coming 1-year-old filly sold for $9 million last year. Stud fees for an upper-echelon colt can cost $150,000 per breeding session. Even the drinks are expensive. Top-shelf mint juleps at Saturday's Kentucky Derby cost $1,000 (rainwater from the island of Tasmania, Australia, was imported for ice).
If you don't have endless pockets full of money, it's not the sport for you. Unless you're Steve Coburn.
Coburn isn't rich. The 60-year-old businessman who has lived for nearly two decades at Topaz Lake on the California-Nevada line wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. at his manufactured home in Douglas County and heads to work at the 13-employee JCP Enterprises in Gardnerville. While at work, he operates a press that makes magnetic strips for credit cards, driver licenses, military IDs and hotel keys.
Coburn, an Army vet, wears a big cowboy hat, but he didn't know how to read a horse racing form until he was in his 40s. He's the furthest thing from a horse racing blue blood. But when 20 horses line up for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the world's most famous horse race, Coburn will be in attendance to watch the favorite, California Chrome Coburn's miracle horse borne out of a series of very fortunate events.
"He's the workingman's horse," Coburn said this week before leaving for Louisville. "Everybody who's had to struggle once in a while or had something bad happen in their life, they appreciate him more than those people who have pockets so deep they have no problem throwing money away."
The story begins five years ago when Coburn, convinced the government was taking too much of his money, went looking for a tax break. He wanted to buy an airplane and write it off, but that's a $250,000 venture. So, he and his wife, Carolyn, took a more cautious approach: They'd buy a horse.
In 2008, the Coburns became part of a 15-partner syndicate for a small filly named Love the Chase. They put down $3,900 for a 5 percent stake. But after Love the Chase flopped as a thoroughbred, the partners wanted to cut their losses and offered the horse to Coburn for $8,000. One other partner Perry and Denise Martin, from Yuba City, Calif. was interested, too, so they bought the horse together having never met.
When the new partners finally met, to sign ownership papers, they had to come up with a race name. They opted for DAP Racing, short for "Dumb Ass Partners," which stemmed their first meeting.
"Somebody at the barn told us, 'You guys are dumb asses if you get in the game and race this horse,'" Coburn said with a chuckle. "Perry looked at me and said, 'I guess we're real dumb asses, partner.'"
They've proven to be anything but that. After retiring Love the Chase, they decided to breed her with a 10-year-old stallion named Lucky Pulpit. The stud fee was $2,000. The resulting foal was California Chrome, a horse worth at least $6 million (that's the offer Coburn said he recently turned down).
The Coburns didn't get into the horse business to win the Kentucky Derby. They did it mostly for the tax write-off, but also as a bonding experience. Steve and Carolyn both love horses. But once California Chrome was born, Steve Coburn knew it was a special horse. In fact, he knew it before Chrome was born.
"I had a dream three weeks prior and I saw him in my dream and he looked just like my dream when he was born," Coburn said. "Carolyn looked at me and said, 'There's your dream.' I looked at her and said, 'No matter what it takes, whatever we have to do, we're going to stay in this game because this little guy is going to do big things.' I didn't know it'd be this big, but I had that inner feeling he was special."
Coburn remembers crouching in the stall the day after California Chrome was born. He fed Chrome animal horse crackers when he was 3 months old. He noticed how curious and people-friendly Chrome was. He saw how smart Chrome was and how quickly he learned and wanted to please people.
When the horse began working out at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, Calif., when he was 18 months old, everybody started to see what Coburn already knew: This was a special horse.
"He stood out from all the other colts," Coburn said. "Once he started, his trainer, Per Antonsen, told me, 'I don't say this often, but if you put this horse in the right place, you're going to have a fun ride.'"
And what a ride it's been.
California Chrome has won six of his 10 races. With new jockey, Victor Espinoza, Chrome is a perfect 4-for-4, winning the races by a combined 24¼ lengths, the equivalent of a three-touchdown blowout in football. Chrome is aiming to be the first California horse to win the Derby since 1962.
He's already changed the Coburns' lives. Going to the Kentucky Derby was a bucket list item. They wanted to go as fans. Now, they go with the Derby favorite, California Chrome a big 5-2 betting favorite who is already drawing talk of a potential Triple Crown, which hasn't been accomplished since 1978.
That's why when Coburn and Martin were offered $6 million for their horse, they turned it down, calling it a "slap in the face" because the offer came from "somebody who's never even put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning." California Chrome is a workman's horse. He's going to stay that way.
"He's like a dream come true," Coburn said. "Some people go all their life trying to find a horse that can make it to the Kentucky Derby and we did it with our first horse. Living in Nevada, an odds-making state, I don't know what the odds are of that happen are maybe one in a trillion?"
On Saturday, Coburn will definitely be celebrating one thing: He turns 61. He'd like to be celebrating a second thing: A Kentucky Derby win by California Chrome, the most unlikely of horses.
"That'd be the greatest birthday present ever," Coburn said.