Posted on 24 May 2014.
The Triple Crown Underdog Hopeful
California Chrome is the star of the show.
He’s the handsome California-bred chestnut colt of humble origins, winner of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, and the dual character of underdog and hero.
California Chrome’s quest to become the first horse to win racing’s Triple Crown since 1978 has captured the imagination of sports fans around the world because the three-year-old stallion’s story is both heartwarming and improbable.
According to media reports, co-owner Steve Coburn got into horse racing because he was looking for a tax write-off. He acquired an $8,000 mare named Love the Chase and bred her with the stallion Lucky Pulpit, whose stud fee was reduced to $2,000. Top-flight mares can fetch six or seven figures, and some stallion owners charge six-figure stud fees.
Adding to Chrome’s charming story is the 77-year-old irascible straight-talking trainer, Art Sherman.
Before Chrome, the closest Sherman got to a Derby horse was as a teenage exercise rider for Swaps, the last California-bred Derby winner to garner this sort of celebrity.
That was in 1955. Now, Sherman says, he finally feels vindicated in his old age. “I always call him a rock star, because he is a rock star right now,” said Sherman. “He’s the little horse against all the big horses. Reminds me of David against Goliath.”
Not surprisingly, California Chrome’s owners have turned down a $15 million purchase offer, thanks to his victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
“You get attached to a horse,” Sherman says with some indignation. “It’s like one of your kids. You know, you take a lot of pride. Would you sell one of your kids if all of a sudden he becomes a superstar and they said, ‘I’ll give you a million dollars for your kid?’ Would you sell him?”
Owners who run a horse in the Derby can invest millions of dollars to get there. Chrome’s people haven’t. He’s a cheaply bred horse, born in California’s Central Valley, wears the color purple of the Sacramento Kings and the logo of a mule, and the owners are regular everyday workaday people like the
most of us.
Yet he’s miraculously turned out to be a very fast racehorse. He easily beat the best of the best on the West Coast, Kentucky, and if all goes well, Baltimore, Maryland.
Dumb Ass Partners
Perry Martin, who co-owns California Chrome with Steve Coburn, has “the highest degree of confidence” in his horse.
Chrome’s mom was the first racehorse Martin and Coburn ever purchased together. A groom told them, “Anyone who buys that horse is a dumb ass.” Martin says he looked at Coburn and asked, “Dumb ass partners?”
“We shook hands, and we were off and running,” Martin says. Really. The business is called Dumb Ass Partners.
Now there’s no separating the owners from their horse, even though Chrome has four white feet, long considered bad luck among horsemen.
“California Chrome shouldn’t be in contention based on his pedigree. But he is– and that is the magic,” said Daily Racing Form CEO John Hartig.
“Owners with billions of dollars have not been able to breed a horse capable of winning the Triple Crown, and yet this thoroughbred looks like he can. Certainly, everyone loves a great underdog story, and a possible Triple Crown winner reignites the passion for racing in old fans while also growing a new younger fan base for the sport,” Hartig said.
“It just goes to demonstrate that a good horse can come from anywhere,” said Andy Schweigart, director for the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “What’s captivating the attention of fans is the back-story. Similarity breeds liking. People identify with the owners and their story.”
Even Chrome’s jockey is of humble beginnings. Victor Espinoza, a 20-year immigrant from Mexico, now finds himself at the top of his game after a long and hard won battle, along with groom Raul Rodriguez.
“There’s too much pressure on me,” said Espinoza with a laugh. “I’m just trying to take this one step at a time. I’m really shocked. There’s something more I see in him that gives me a little more confidence, too.”
“I lost a couple of nights’ sleep when I heard he was the Derby favorite,” Espinoza said.
“Think about it,” he added. “The whole Derby was in my hands. It was not easy. Everybody was rooting for me. Not just California, but fans all over the place. People love this horse. They want him to win. You don’t want to let anybody down.”
California Chrome is expected to be the odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes on June 7. And he’s developed his own following of fans, too. They’re called Chromies.
“He’s just such an interesting horse,” said Chromie Melissa Leos, who fell in love with the colt at Santa Anita Park this spring. “Art Sherman is so cool and so are the owners.”
Chrome mania has stretched nationwide. Motivated by the “people’s horse,” Chromies– mostly new and unabashed racing fans– are out in force from coast to coast. What makes Chromies stand out from everyday horse players? A zealot-like devotion, a flair for fun and an undying belief in their underdog.
“California Chrome is a horse that everybody identifies with,” said Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s longtime director of publicity. “Throw in the irascible owners and trainer and we’ve got a movie script that might make Seabiscuit move to the side.”
One Cool Dude
Chrome also has maintained his California cool.
On Friday, he ignored a large opossum that ran across his path while he jogged around the Belmont oval. That laid-back swagger is part of Chrome’s allure.
“This guy has shattered my reality,” said Christian Hellmers, a professional gambler. “He’s so precocious and so classy. It’s a true testament to his greatness. I don’t throw the word ‘Jedi’ around often, but he’s definitely a Jedi.”
I just love the fact that a horse this great still gets doubted,” Hellmers said. “It takes such a combination of grit, class and energy – chemistry, too – to do what he’s done. If not him, then nobody can win the Triple Crown.”
The four-legged Rocky already is in some illustrious company.
In the history of horse racing, 38 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Only 11 have won the Triple Crown.
Famous Triple Crown winners, you may remember, included such notables as Secretariat (’73), Seattle Slew (’77) and Affirmed (’78).
Encountering more pedigreed and blueblood horses at the upcoming Belmont, Chromies may soon see their beautiful chestnut colt ushered into the sacred hallowed halls of racing fame and the Triple Crown come June 7.
~Google/Ocala News, SunStar, Horse Racing Nation/The Blood-Horse/YouTube
For Mickey Dillon
Share us with others
and follow us on Twitter and Facebook