Three Champs Lead Class of 2023 into Hall of Fame

Steve Coburn | Mike Kane


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Co-owner and co-breeder Steve Coburn was a quotable presence during California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit)'s fine career and delivered again Friday when the California-bred was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame.

Champions California Chrome, Arrogate (Unbridled's Song) and Songbird (Medaglia d'Oro), all in their first year of eligibility, joined jockey Corey Nakatani in the contemporary class of 2023. Fernando Toro was selected by the Historic Review Committee. Three people–the late John Hanes II, the late Leonard Jerome and Stella F. Thayer–were inducted as Pillars of the Turf in the ceremony at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion.

Award-winning journalist Edward Bowen, a museum trustee who has chaired a number of Hall of Fame committees, was presented with the inaugural Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Award for his contributions to the museum.

With his big cowboy hat in hand, Coburn accepted for California Chrome, winner of the GI Kentucky Derby, GI Preakness S. and G1 Dubai World Cup and a two-time Horse of the Year. California Chrome won 16 of 27 starts, a total of seven Grade I races and earned $14,752,650.

Coburn thanked the horse for taking him and his wife in a remarkable journey over five seasons. He praised the work of trainer Art Sherman and his son and assistant Alan, and the staff, who he named, for the way they developed and handled the horse.

California Chrome's story–from his modest breeding, to difficulty the mare Love the Chase had with his foaling, to his personality and his connections–blended nicely with his success on the track and produced a legion of fans who called themselves “Chromies.”

“The mare had problems giving birth to Chrome, so as a baby, he was in the stall with the mare,” Coburn said. “He wasn't turned out with the rest of them. The only time he got to play with anybody was when they came to check on him. That's how come he became so loveable to people. He just liked people. I don't know how to express the love that people gave this horse. The Chromies are here. They've come in from all over the place, you know. Thank you.”

As he moved to the end of his remarks, Coburn, hesitated for a moment to control his emotions.

“Last but not least, I would like to thank that little nervous filly, Love the Chase,” he said. “Without her we wouldn't have Chrome and for Chrome to be inducted into the Hall of Fame it's indescribable. Just like winning the Kentucky Derby. This is a good way to say that story has come to an end. I told Laffit Pincay, III after he won the Santa Anita Derby, 'Mark my words. This horse is going to go down in history.' And today's the day. Period.”

Nakatani, 52, was the final inductee on the program. He came to the sport as a teenager with no background with horses, but fashioned an outstanding 31-year career. He won 3,909 races; 10 of his 341 graded stakes wins came in the Breeders' Cup. His $234,554,534 in purse earnings ranks 14th.

To describe his attitude and determination, Nakatani told the story of what he did in a game of youth football. He said he weighed about 58 pounds at the time and was told by his coach to run around a defensive player to score a touchdown. Instead, he decided to try to run over the other player and was stopped on the two-yard line.

“Long story short, that was the first time that I was told not to do something and was like 'I better just go it.' That tells my career in a nutshell,” he said as the audience roared.

Nakatani was built to be a jockey, and, despite his lack of experience, he developed the skill needed to succeed against the odds on the tough Southern California circuit.

“The guys I was riding against were Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay,  all these Hall of Fame riders,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to ride with them and take a lot of learning from all of it. Sandy Hawley. Alex Solis. All the guys that I had the chance to ride with, even the King of Saratoga, Angel (Cordero, Jr.). These guys have a special place in my heart.”

Toro, 82, did not make the cross-continent trip from his home in California and will be honored at Del Mar. The native of Chile, was a top rider in his home country before moving to California in 1966. He retired in 1990 with North America totals of 3,555 victories and purse earnings of $56,299,765. He won 80 graded stakes. At the time of his retirement, he was sixth in stakes wins at Del Mar, eighth at Hollywood Park and tied for eighth at Santa Anita.

During the ceremony, a video was shown of how California turf writers Jay Hovdey and Jay Privman told Toro that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame.

Arrogate, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, showed that he had the makings of a superstar in the 2016 GI Travers just down the street from the sales pavilion at Saratoga Race Course. In his first graded stakes attempt, he won by 13 1/2 lengths and broke a 37-year-old track record for 1 1/4 miles. He went on to win the GI Breeders' Cup Classic, edging California Chrome, the 2017 GI Pegasus World Cup and the 2017 Dubai World Cup in a seven-race win streak. The gray colt owned by Juddmonte Farm retired with a record $17,422,600 in purse earnings.

Dr. John Chandler accepted on behalf of Juddmonte Farms, the racing powerhouse launched by the late Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah.

“It's very sad that Prince Khalid himself unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago,” Chandler said. “He would have liked to have been here and appreciate the recognition.”

Arrogate was a departure from the norm for Prince Khalid's international stable.

“For many years at Juddmonte, we had a lot of turf horses, because our racing started in England,” Chandler said. “We were going through a bad spell after our trainer Bobby Frankel passed away. The Prince had been looking through all the results, week after week, and he said, 'This man in California, Bob Baffert, is doing very well isn't he, training a lot of winners. Why don't we send him some horses?'”

Since Baffert mainly trained dirt horses, Chandler said the turf horses bred by Juddmonte would not be a good fit. He said the Prince said, 'So, we'll buy some dirt horses.' The trainer and Garrett (O'Rourke, Juddmonte's U.S. manager), went to the sales and they bought some horses, some nice, expensive dirt horses. One of them turned out to be Arrogate. That brought the Prince more pleasure than anything else that I'd seen in a long time. We're very grateful to the Hall of Fame committee to take our horse. All I can say is thank you.”

Songbird, owned by the late Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm, started her career with 11 consecutive victories and retired in 2017 with a record of 13 wins and two seconds from 15 starts. Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, she secured Grade I victories at two, three and four and earned $4,692,000.

“In her 15 races, it took being a champion to beat Songbird,” said Fox Hill manager Victoria Keith. “She lost, finishing second twice, to Beholder and champion Forever Unbridled.”

Keith described Songbird as a talented but laid-back filly.

“You often hear that great racehorses have a fiery side and this contributes to them being a great race horse,” she said. “You particularly hear this about speed horses. Songbird was a speed horse but she had no fiery side. She's a sweet, loving and gentle horse.”

Keith and Porter's widow, Betsy, accepted Songbird's plaque.

“We are so pleased that Songbird is being inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Keith said. “We consider it not only an honor for Songbird, but also for Rick Porter and Fox Hill Farm. It is bittersweet because we dearly wish that it was Rick on the stage today.”

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