Sunday September 21st, 2014

BENSALEM, Pa. – It is the privilege of the Kentucky Derby winner who runs on toward autumn to be received like racing royalty. The moment is treated as a mix of comeback and coronation—perhaps the start of a second act, perhaps the last glimpse of greatness. Worthy of attendance in either case. So it was late Saturday afternoon that California Chrome, the brilliant and popular winner of last spring’s Derby and Preakness, came to run the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing, a turf outpost 20 minutes from downtown Philadelphia where a modest, 40-year-0ld grandstand slouches across a vast parking lot from a giant casino. A crowd estimated (estimated because attendance was free, sans turnstiles) at 16,000 squeezed into the space where on an average Saturday there would have been fewer than 1,000.

They clustered on outside stairways overlooking the grounds and stood four-deep at railings. They clapped when Chrome’s minority owner, Steve Coburn—whose boozy, post-race meltdown had steamrolled the news of Chrome’s defeat (and Tonalist’s victory) in the Belmont—strolled into the paddock before the start in his signature ivory Stetson. “Good to be back,” said Coburn. “We’re better than ever.” They cheered when Chrome arrived, his chestnut coat glistening. A sign hung from a railing announced the presence of CHROME’S NO. 1 FAN. They held smartphones above their heads and pecked at the screens in hopes that one of their snapshots would capture the image of the big horse, preserving a piece of equine history.

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History Walks By: The story of California Chrome

It was a lovely scene, brought to a cold and sudden conclusion only a few strides after the starting gate rattled open. Running for the first time in 105 days, when he finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the Belmont and fell short of the Triple Crown, California Chrome was run into exactly the type of inside-rail box that he despises. Running in between rivals, he never seemed to find a comfortable stride and finished sixth in the eight-horse field, eight lengths behind Bayern, who nailed down a dominant, front-running victory. It was a defeat that, though it did nothing to sully Chrome’s historic résumé, left his fairy-tale spring further in the distance and made the climb to a Breeders’ Cup Classic win on Nov. 1 seem exponentially more difficult. “Well,” said Art Sherman, Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer, after the race, “now he’s gotten beat twice in a row.”

California Chrome ran the Pennsylvania Derby because it was time to race again. After his loss in the Belmont on June 7, he had spent more than five weeks resting at the farm where he was born in central California’s San Joaquin Valley and then had returned to the racetrack in July, when he went through a series of increasingly demanding workouts. In the spring, Chrome had captivated the racing world (and some of the world beyond it) not only because he won the Derby and the Preakness, but also because he was the product of a slow-footed filly purchased for $8,000, who had been bred to an inconsistent stallion for $1,500—and because Sherman had a spent a lifetime at the racetrack and never imagined, or come close to, such success.

But the colt had also been soundly trounced in the Belmont, transforming almost instantly from an equine star into just another very good horse who couldn’t finish off the Triple Crown. He might have lost that day because one of his hooves had been gashed at the start of the race, or because he had gotten stuck on the inside for too long, unable to run freely the way he likes. Lord knows, he might have even lost because, as Coburn angrily preached, he was tired from the grind of the long Triple Crown spring and other horses, including the lightly raced Tonalist, were not. (But that’s not a reason to change the series, end of discussion — until it arises next spring, as certain as daffodils rise from the earth.) Whatever the reason, Chrome lost the Belmont, and with it a piece of his mojo. While he rested this summer, Shared Belief, the 2013 2-year-old champion who missed the Triple Crown series with an injury, had exploded back into brilliant form. Shared Belief now looms as a threat to win the Classic, and perhaps even the vote for the 3-year-old championship.

In this sense, California Chrome’s appearance at Parx (which opened in 1974 as Keystone Park, and which later became Philadelphia Park), the first ever by a Kentucky Derby winner in the state of Pennsylvania after winning the Derby, was more than a showcase. It was a race Chrome needed, to advance his conditioning and his profile. He surely did not do the latter and he may not have done the former.

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The victory of California Chrome and the magic of the Derby

It was not a textbook move for Sherman and owners Coburn (30%) and Perry Martin (70%) to ship a colt across the country to prep for a race in their home state. (The Breeders' Cup will be run on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Santa Anita in Southern California, near Chrome’s training base at Los Alamitos Race Track.) But there were incentives: As part of the race's conditions, any horse running in the Pennsylvania Derby who had also won any of five previous races—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, the Haskell or the Travers—would earn $50,000 per victory for his owner and trainer. Hence, Sherman was paid $100,000 and Dumb Ass Partners (the name of Martin’s and Coburn’s stable) were paid another $100,000. There was also a disincentive: Shared Belief is running the logical SoCal prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Awesome Again Stakes, on Sept 27. “And Shared Belief,” says Sherman, “is some horse.”

There had been an ominous portent for California Chrome in the week before the Pennsylvania Derby, even before his flight from California landed, when he drew the first post position, inside the speedy Bayern, who won the Haskell in late July and finished last in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 23 after leading the field through sizzling fractions. “I didn’t like when I heard that post position,” said Chrome’s regular jockey, Victor Espinoza. During the colt’s six-race winning streak last winter and spring, he had always managed to stay on the outside of his competition, running free. His original jockey, Alberto Delgado, said in late May, “He doesn’t like getting dirt kicked in his face.”

As soon as the gate opened, Bayern cruised into the lead. No surprise. But then from the far outside, 27–1 long shot C.J.’s Awesome rolled up to California Chrome’s saddle. “As soon as I got alongside him,” said Edgar Prado, who rode C.J.’s Awesome, “I thought [Chrome] seemed intimidated. He didn’t like having me there.” Aboard Bayern, jockey Martin Garcia immediately slowed the pace, the default tactic of a rider trying to stretch his horse's speed for nine furlongs (the Pennsylvania Derby is an eighth of a mile shorter than the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby). “I knew I was in trouble on the first turn,” said Espinoza. “Bayern slowed right down, and those other riders, they were riding to beat my horse.”

Sherman said, “Victor was riding right up Bayern’s ass. He didn’t have anywhere to go. [Chrome] gets kind of funny down in there. I said to Victor afterward, ‘That looked a lot like the Belmont.’”

Garcia skillfully controlled Bayern down the backstretch, running the second quarter of the race (23.82 seconds) faster than the first (24.07), and zipping through the third quarter even faster (22.99 seconds). Prado gave Espinoza nowhere to run, and even got some help from Javier Castellano on 8–1 shot Protonico, who pestered California Chrome from behind. “My horse never really ran a good stride the whole race,” said Espinoza. “I just couldn’t get out. I think he’s good. He was good in training. But he couldn’t run today.”

Bayern blasted free at the top of the stretch to win by 5¾ lengths in a track record 1:46.96. “That was a powerful performance,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who watched the race from California. “When California Chrome was penned in there, I knew it was going to be tough for him.”

It works no differently for thoroughbreds than for human athletes. Great victories fade into the mist of time and racehorses are judged on the what they do in the here and now. California Chrome lifted racing onto his shoulders in the spring and brought it to the rest of America. Now there are questions, and there is also a blueprint for beating him. When he feels the flank of another horse against his, he is far less potent than when he runs free. Sherman said that, barring injury, Chrome will push on to the Breeders' Cup. It’s not clear that the colt derived much athletic benefit from his struggle on Saturday. It’s obvious that he can’t win from the rail, unless he rockets to the lead. (Coburn and Sherman have said that Chrome will run as a 4-year-old, but repeated losses will not enhance his value as a stallion.)

There are a maximum of 14 horses in the Classic. The odds of drawing a deep inside post are long, but no longer than they are for any other horse in the field. “I would hope I get a better draw,” said Sherman, mixing humor and desperation. “Then you’ll see a different horse.” He paused and looked up. “And we’ll be a lot better price.”

That is certain. Oddsmakers and railbirds see only cold type on a screen and feel little of the romance of history. California Chrome is already in the books forever. Whether he returns the winners circle again remains to be seen.

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