California Chrome

By Lloyd Graff

I am hardly a horse racing buff, but the story of California Chrome, winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is just so Mickey Rooney, it’s irresistible.

The California horse is trained by Art Sherman, who at 77 is the oldest trainer to ever win a Derby. A former jockey of little success, the 5’2” fellow’s only other appearance at Churchill Downs was in 1955 as an exercise boy for Derby winner, Swaps. He actually slept on the straw with Swaps on the horse’s four-day road trip from California to Louisville for the race.

California Chrome is owned by an unlikely partnership of two blue-collar guys, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, along with their wives. Martin owns a tiny materials testing firm at the former McClellan Air Force base where he used to work for the Air Force until the base was closed. His claim to fame until now is writing the Electronic Failure Analysis Handbook in 1999. Coburn is a press operator at a firm that produces magnetic strips for credit cards.

These guys are not big time operators. Coburn’s wife Carol bought her Kentucky Derby outfit at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. The name of their racing outfit is DAP, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. The colors of the silks are purple and green, her favorites.

Art Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer, is on the fringes of racing. He works out of minor league race tracks in California and trains about 15 horses with his son Alan. He just bought a house in a retirement community near San Diego. He loves California Chrome, who comes from quite undistinguished thoroughbred lineage. His mother cost $8,000 and his father cost $2,500. The horse has a refined appetite however — he hates carrots but loves cookies. Sherman says the horse really races to get his horse cookies, Mrs. Pasture’s Paddock Cookies, made of molasses, barley and corn.

Dumb Ass Partners turned down a $6 million offer for a 51% stake in the colt shortly before the Derby, so I don’t think the Coburns and Martins are all that dumb.

Personally, I have little interest in horse racing, but I’ve always loved the hokey movies about the Sport of Kings. My dad Leonard was not a huge fan of horse racing, but he was fascinated that a used machinery dealer he knew, Isaac Blumberg, founder of Adams Machinery in Chicago, had owned a Kentucky Derby winner in 1960 named Venetian Way. I remember going to Gulfstream Park Racing with him in Hallandale Beach, Florida when his health was failing. We picked horses to bet $2 on, for no good reason except that we liked their names. They were memorable outings, if only because they were so unlike his normal everyday routine in Florida. So when I hear about California Chrome, Dumb Ass Partners, and a 77-year-old trainer who slept alongside his horse in 1955 on a cross country schlep, I love it. Win that Triple Crown, you big brown cookie-loving nag! I’ll have a few bucks on your nose.

Question: Can a small shop running mechanical equipment compete with a large shop running the latest and greatest?

“National Velvet” staring Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor

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10 thoughts on “California Chrome

  1. Anon

    Dear Lloyd,

    Thank you for sharing your story about California Chrome and the great memories that it invokes. While you mention you are not a fan of horse racing, which I am happy to hear, many people who are not a fan or whom see it as any other sport know little more about what happens to the horses after racing. These gentle giants need their fans to remember them and be their proponents during their racing career and after too. You may be mortified to know their fate of many when they stop winning races and making money. It is a tragedy that a symbol of our American heritage and quite literally the workhorse that helped mold America in terms of growth, exploration, transportation and more is protected very little.

    About your question on a “Can a small shop running mechanical equipment compete with a large shop running the latest and greatest.” That is a very intricate question. A machine or computer can not always replace ingenuity, skill and years of mastering an art. While some production has been replaced by CNC equipment, many machines still require what the operator has to offer the equipment being programmed. Perhaps as far as volume – a large shop would be hard to complete with, however volume may not always be as important as precision or the “special sauce” that makes a product perform above all others. There is a balance – what is more important in the project. Surely the right operator/engineer in a highly fitted shop will make the company shine.

    Thank you kindly

  2. allen

    A lot of the appeal of sports lies in the unlikely triumph of the little guy over the big shooters.

    In horse racing that’s crystallized in the observation that “every now and then the Kentucky Derby’s won by a horse out of Texas by truck” so, like the proverbial horse out of Texas by truck, it’s possible but that’s not the way the smart money bets.

    To respond to your question, which I think was actually “can a small, manual shop compete against a large shop running computer-controlled equipment” the answer is it depends where on the development curve we are.

    John Henry beat a steam drill not because courage and an indomitable spirit can overcome all adversity but because it was a first-generation steam drill and just somewhat better then the average steel-drivin’ man. John Henry was exceptional so could beat the steam drill. He sure as heck couldn’t do that with the current crop of power drills and probably not with the second generation of steam drills.

    So if that manual shop’s competing with a big shop with first-generation CNC equipment, sure. As long as the manual shop doesn’t try to go up against the strengths of even first generation CNC equipment. But there’s inevitably a second- and a third-generation following the first generation and they’re also necessarily better then that first generation.

    That constant improvement pushes the small shop, particularly the small manual shop, into an increasingly small corner. Eventually that corner’s too small to allow the shop to survive.

  3. Michael Bowser

    Lloyd –

    Small shops with 40+ years old manual equipment (like mine) can compete with larger shops running recent CNC equipment given certain caveats:

    1) Customer service – be able to recommend changes to parts and designs to reduce complexity, manufacturing cost and delivery time. The vast majority of shops will only accept fully tolerance drawings, i.e. “The parts match the drawing but don’t fit or work? Your problem, send us more drawings”

    2) Fast delivery – be able to return customer quotes within two days as most and deliver parts within one to two weeks. Long backlogs do not endear customers.

    3) Permit small volumes, even one part – larger shops must balance programming and setup cost (which can be profoundly expensive for less efficient shops) and the profit from part volumes.

    4) Be willing to tackle the risky oddball jobs – a shop’s reputation as a problem solver will usually generate additional work from the better customer base. The more abusive customer base usually seeks low price anyway – let the larger shops have them.

    5) Share wisdom with the customer (ESPECIALLY if they are engineers) as there are precious few people who know how to cut anymore. Remember: “The educated customer is the best customer”

    That being said, I lose significant financial advantage by not having any CNC machinery.


  4. Jeff

    Horse racing is something a bit foreign tome. Air get’s a little thin in that atmosphere for me, although I was raised around working ranch horses in West Texas.
    As for you question about shops competing with older manual equipment against top of the line new stuff, As most of the responses I’ve seen already, I’d have to say a lot of it depend on the work, and who’s doing it. Some jobs are far too complex to be able to compete against the CNC with manual equipment. Some jobs are not big enough to allow all the setup and programming time required in a CNC. The rapidly improving CNC controls and cad/cam software being sen and employed today are swiftly closing that gap. Repair work, what I used to call onesy-twosey work, in capable hands, can likely be done and out the door by the time a CNC is up and running. But you’re not likely to be in a market with enough of that kind of work to make a living at it. So, while I started out in a manual shop, and still do a lot of that work, I’d say No, a manual shop cannot “compete” with the modern CNC, if by compete you mean stay in the game, profitably, day in , day out, for long enough to make a profitable business out of it. Is there work out there for a manual shop, sure, in the right market lots of it. But long term, overhead and all the other expenses incurred in running a shop today makes the manuals, IMHO, a dying art. THe CNCs are just too fast, and getting easier and faster to do short runs on every day. Long runs, the CNCs eclipsed the manuals years ago.
    Old dinosaurs like me are not gonna be happy with me for saying this, but I manage a shop full of the CNC’s, and still have some manuals running everyday. AND one of my biggest responsibilities is watching and trying to convert manual ops over to the CNCs. It’s just progress, and either you can get on-board with it, or keep standing there and let it run over you.

  5. John Veleno

    I’m 80 years old and still up with machinery although I haven’t had the opportunity to purchase the new ones I so love seeing. I just published the autobiographical portion of my life for the first time a few days ago. There is one small portion of it that has my experience one day at horse racing when I was between 14 and 15 years old. There is a section called “My horsing around days.” In it one portion is labeled “My one day of horse racing.” I would like you to read it, not only because of me or the horses but I hope it can help you feel the insight a horse can have. What I wrote is all absolute true, even though it is difficult for me to believe. It was not a dream. I also have a certificate of proof that I am a Journeyman Machinist and much more by way of luck or God, and I choose God. My book called “The Veleno Story” will tell you about what I have accomplished but never bragged about it. They all seem to me as simply things that just happen. I was told once by a very wise person “you never tried to impress anyone but nonetheless did.” I am in hopes you will read and enjoy it. I’ve had recent strokes that left me a little emotionally weird but I handle in the same way as everything else. It’s just another thing, I’ll get over it.

    I love your story very much, and its another true story. It hit me hard.
    John Veleno

    You may print this or a portion of it if you like, John

  6. John Bressoud

    David will always beat Goliath, as long as David picks the battles. Speed beats size any day.

  7. Peter Frow

    As with horse racing so with machine types it’s a case of “horses for courses”. The sector served by screw machines and multis is unquestionably shrinking in size driven to a large extent by the shrinking pool of skills with the ability to design cams and set the machines.
    Despite this one often sees fairly simple jobs run on CNC lathes with far longer cycle times than can be achieved on a screw machine costing a fraction of the cost of the CNC. This inevitably drives the cost of this class of component up. So there will continue to be work for companies running mechanical machinery for some time to come, provided they can retain and husband the necessary skills to run the machines.
    One needs to remove the subjective element from this kind of decision as far as possible by plotting ‘cost-effectiveness’ curves for a particular component run on different types of machines. These curves are a function of capital cost, operating cost including staffing cost, cycle time and setup time.

  8. Albert B. Albrecht

    The answer is yes – my dad had a small shop and he took in work the big guys would not touch and made good money doing so – he had all manual machines, but skilled machinists knowledgeable about tooling, speeds & feeds, materials, and how to set-up a job and beat the hours quoted.

    Al Albrecht


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