Horse racing has long been known as the "Sport of Kings," and for Yuba City residents Perry and Denise Martin, a relatively small investment could end up paying out a king's ransom.
As first-time horse-breeders, the Martins will be at the center of attention at the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday as their 3-year-old colt, California Chrome, is the favorite to win the world's premier horse race.
Their story is well-known across the nation by now after recent feature stories in Sports Illustrated and several other major publications, and this week should only bring more attention.
The couple were part of foursome that bought California Chrome's mother, Love The Chase, for just $8,000 in 2009 and bred the filly with a 10-year-old stallion named Lucky Pulpit, whose breeding rights were selling for around $2,500 at the time (by contrast, Kentucky horse breeders ask anywhere from $15,000 to $150,000 per mating).
Now, that $10,500 investment is paying off big time.
After winning just two of his first six starts, California Chrome has won four races in a row and has earned more than $1.13 million in winnings. His last four wins have all come in important stakes races where he pulled away from the pack to win by a combined margin of 241⁄2 lengths.
In March, the Martins and co-owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev., turned down $6 million for a 51 percent controlling interest in California Chrome that would have resulted in a change of its trainer and crew. When the chestnut-colored thoroughbred won the prestigious Santa Anita Derby by a commanding 51⁄4 lengths on April 5, the Martins and Coburns rejected a much higher offer.
After California Chrome's recent success, Lucky Pulpit's stud fee went up to $10,000 and another potential buyer has reportedly offered a staggering $2.1 million for Love The Game. The Martins and Coburns have turned down every offer.
Only three California-bred colts have won the Kentucky Derby, the last coming 52 years ago when Decidedly won. On Saturday, the Martins are hoping the horse with the distinct white feet and streak down its face will become the fourth to win the historic race known as the Run for the Roses.
"It's extremely exciting. He's a really good horse and he deserves it. He has the right temperament," Denise Martin said. "We just hope we can make it through the day. It's hard for your horse to come up sometimes."
The Martins moved to Yuba City in 1994 when Perry got a job as an engineer at McClellan Air Force Base. After the base closed in 2001, the Martins bought the testing facility and turned it into their family business, Martin Testing Laboratories, where they test various materials for strength, safety and durability.
Unlike the uber-rich horse owners that tend to dominate the Kentucky Derby, the Martins are somewhat of an aberration with their working-class backgrounds. They make the 44-mile commute from Yuba City to McClellan every day and own a modest home in Yuba City where they raised their two children, both of whom graduated from Yuba City High.
"We moved here so we could have our weekends with the kids," Denise Martin said. "We wanted a place where the kids could ride their bikes and we could go hiking and camping. We really don't have a big place here."
The Martins are both natives of Chicago and frequented the racetracks in the area before moving to California, though Saturday will mark Denise Martin's first trip to Churchill Downs.
"I haven't been, but my husband did when he was in college. He was on the infield and didn't see much of the race. It's nothing like being an owner or a spectator in a box," said Denise, who flew out to Louisville, Ky., on Monday. "We've had a lot of calls and we have had a lot of work to do, so we've been scrambling to get those things in."
Much of the attention leading up to race has centered around the name of the partnership between the Martins and Coburns. When the two couples were looking to buy Love The Game, a man behind them joked, "Whoever buys this mare sure is a dumb-ass." Thus began their name, Dumb Ass Partners, or DAP Racing.
"We were both interested in the same horse and we worked things out because we liked each other," Denise Martin said of the partnership with the Coburns. "We knew she would be exceptional, and if we had the right match, things would work out in the long run."
Has it ever — the Derby purse is $2 million, with $1.2 million guaranteed for the winner.
The race will air on NBC, beginning at 3:24 p.m. Saturday with pre-race coverage set to begin at 1 p.m.
Due to a hectic schedule, Perry Martin did not return interview requests from the Appeal-Democrat.
CONTACT Sports Reporter Andy Arrenquin at 749-4790.