Michigan Tech Alumnus is no "Dumb Ass": California Chrome Proves Perry Martin Right

By Dennis Walikainen | Published

Victor Espinoza rides California Chrome to victory at the Kentucky Derby.
Victor Espinoza rides California Chrome to victory at the Kentucky Derby.

A Michigan Technological University alum’s three-part dream has come two-thirds true, as California Chrome took co-owner Perry Martin to the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

It is monumental, but something can make it bigger: a Belmont victory and the Triple Crown.

Amid massive media attention, Martin recalled his roots, including his 83-year old mother, Katherine, who spent the end of the Derby hugging her son.

Martin’s love of horse racing started early, before he had his driver’s license, at Arlington Park in his native Chicago. When he could drive himself to the track, he kept going, got his future wife hooked, and eventually convinced her they should buy a racehorse.

Good move.

“My wife, Denise, finally calmed down when I said we could purchase as little as 5 percent of a horse, as part of a syndicate” Martin, a 1978 applied physics graduate, recalls. 

As they progressed through various ownerships, they would pay $8,000 for Love the Chase with partners Steve and Caroline Coburn, a move that caused someone to comment: "Only a dumb ass would buy that horse."  Dumb Ass Partners was born, and Love the Chase’s first foal was California Chrome.

“We saw him a couple of hours after he was born, and he was up and running circles around mom, who was hooked up to an IV, as she was cut up pretty bad,” Martin says. “She was trying to keep an eye on him and had the IV all twisted up. He was something special from the beginning, and big, 137 pounds.”

He’s the ultimate alpha male, too, Martin says. Separated from the females out in the pastures, he quickly became leader of the pack, whether feeding, drinking or catching some shade. That comes with its own set of problems.

“He’s constantly defending his turf,” Martin says. “It’s gut-wrenching to watch them rearing up and throwing hooves. We’ve got lots of doctor bills to show for it.”

Once, while Martin was walking across California Chrome’s 20-acre pasture, the horse recognized him and Denise and started galloping toward them. All 30 horses followed suit.

“We thought, ‘This was not a good idea,’” he says. “But he slowed down, and all the horses followed. They were just curious, sniffing us, checking us out.”

The horse's name comes from his white markings, a white blaze on his face and four white stockings just above his hooves. The white is “chrome” in horse-speak.

And he’s still big. Martin, who hadn’t seen him in awhile, went up on an eight-inch platform to accept the first prize. There, the 6-foot, 4-inch Martin found himself still looking up at the horse.

He’s approximately 17 hands, four inches per hand, which is measured to the top of the front shoulders.  Sixteen hands is closer to normal. And the three-year-old might still be growing.

“You can’t miss him,” says Martin. “He really stands out.”

California Chrome has won 7 of 11 races, with some runner-up finishes, and, before the Derby, his biggest win was at Santa Anita, the famous California track and event.

“He was seven and a half lengths ahead, so his jockey, Victor Espinosa, eased up on him,” Martin says. “He still won by five and a half lengths and ended up with the second-fastest time in the 77-year history of the race.”

At the Derby, California Chrome charged after the final turn to an easy victory, again allowing Espinosa to ease up on him.

After celebrating with his partner and family, including his mother, Martin returned to his business, Martin Testing, which evaluates materials for toughness and durability. Some of the research ensures a high level of safety: “If they don’t work, people die,” Martin explains.

He’ll return to the thoroughbred world soon, continuing to the Belmont in three weeks, with a horse that he says is very intelligent.

“He loves his business. He loves to run,” Martin says. “He calls to us before a race, looks for us, finds us, and he whinnies really loud. ‘It’s race day, I want to show my stuff.’”

When males mature, their hormones take over as stallions, and they can become very aggressive, Martin says. He can’t play with California Chrome like he used to.

“But we are very respectful of each other,” Martin adds. “He’s big.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.