Stacks of photos are arranged on the floor of Denise Martin's cluttered California office, where she works in chemistry and thermal analytics. Some 180 miles to the southeast, Carolyn Coburn carries her pictures with her, and she shows them off to practically everyone she meets in her rural Nevada community.
Starring in the two women's photos is the same subject: California Chrome, the favorite to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The women met when they, along with their husbands, purchased Chrome's mother, Love The Chase, in 2009. The Martins and Coburns had previously been part of an ownership group in which they owned 5 percent shares of Love The Chase. When that partnership was about to dissolve, the Coburns stepped up to buy the horse, and the Martins decided to join. For $8,000, the couples, who had never met, bought Love The Chase. Two years later, in 2011, California Chrome was born, and "the rest was history," as 63-year-old Carolyn likes to say.
Ever since, the couples have developed a friendship around the horse they have all come to love. The Martins, originally from Chicago, moved to Yuba City, Calif., to form their own business, Martin Testing Laboratories, which tests polymers, metals and other materials. That uprooting was lonely until Chrome came into the picture.
"We had kind of a culture shock when we moved to California," 53-year-old Denise said. "In Chicago, everyone was so friendly and we knew all our neighbors. When we met the Martins, it was nice just to have somebody to talk to when they visited."
While California Chrome was growing up at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., the four owners would convene to visit the "mischievous" foal -- even if that meant traveling hours in the snow, as the Coburns regularly did to get from their rural Nevada home.
Watching their foal -- the first that the Coburns and Martins had bred together -- grow up had become their pride and joy. Both couples' children were now adults, but Denise and Carolyn quickly reverted to their motherly instincts.
"We would go there every two or three weeks and we were amazed every time we saw him," Carolyn said. "It was just like a child, seeing how much he had grown. He was always a little active and curious and sometimes got into trouble. ... It amazed us how much he matured every time we saw him. Everyone was mesmerized by him."
California Chrome became an "integral" part of the families -- a horse who loved to play with the Martin children (who were in their mid-20s) and was a gentle friend to the Coburn grandchildren.
Not only did Chrome insert himself into the families as a pseudo child, but Denise and Carolyn say the horse has brought the humans closer, as well.
Initially, Carolyn was the one who got Steve interested in horse racing -- during a trip to the tracks, he won more than $400 off a $2 bet, and he was hooked. Now, raising California Chrome is just another hobby that strengthens their relationship, like their shared love for music and dancing.
For Denise, California Chrome's trip to the Derby will become a family reunion. She and her husband, Perry, along with their two children, took a train all the way from California to Kentucky. She had never been on a train and thought the opportunity would be perfect to reconnect with her family for a few days of "vacation." In Kentucky, the Martins are meeting up with about a dozen other relatives.
More than anything, the Martins and Coburns have become one well-oiled machine, working together just like their horse's smooth and powerful muscles. From the first time they met to look at Love The Chase -- when a nearby groom offhandedly said, "Whoever buys that horse is a dumb ass" -- to when the Martins gained the Coburns as friends, and now all the way to Louisville for the Derby, the four owners have worked together to make decisions.
Except for the color of California Chrome's silks -- that was the women's domain. Each picked her favorite color (Carolyn purple and Denise green). Then Carolyn thought to include a bright green jackass to represent the name of their partnership: Dumb Ass Partners, a testament to when people did not believe in Chrome's mother and even doubted the owners themselves.
"From the beginning, when we bought Love The Chase, we had one strike against us," Carolyn said. "People were already saying, 'Oh, they don't know what they're doing.' It is kind of a high society-type of industry, but we're not. We're just good working people and we have high values."
Although Denise and Carolyn had final say on the team's image, the rest of the decisions involving Chrome are on a more democratic basis. Denise acts as the "sounding board" for her more analytical husband. Carolyn, who worked in payroll for a medical company before retiring in February, is able to work through logistics like hotel reservations and returning phone calls while Steve works.
All that hard work to raise Chrome included a financial burden on both couples: They essentially emptied their retirement funds to pay for Chrome's training, boarding and transportation. But thanks to Chrome's track record -- 10 career starts and six first-place finishes -- the families have regained nearly $1.2 million in earnings. A win on Saturday would bring in a $1,442,800 paycheck.
Now the horse that the DAP Racing group raised from birth has moved past its rambunctious stage into being a Derby favorite.
Both Denise and Carolyn praised how much California Chrome had grown in the short time they have known him. They love to tell their friends about his maturity and journey. They still share those stacks of horse pictures.
But this time, after a trip to Kentucky, the next photos they flash might just involve a blanket of roses, too.