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California Chrome's quest for the Triple Crown

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The story of California Chrome's journey to the verge of immortality has a significant human element.

Four hours had passed since California Chrome's victory in the Preakness, and now floodlights illuminated the asphalt walkways and wood-chip bridle paths of Pimlico Race Course. The back side of the stakes barn, where Preakness horses are stabled, lay in near total darkness. A young security guard in a black hat and black windbreaker, stationed inside the barn, chased away a group of stragglers trying to slip beneath an awning for a picture of the big horse in stall 40 -- young women wobbling on high heels and men in crooked fedoras at the end of a long day. When they were gone, the guard leaned over the white wooden rail that closed off the barn and shook his head.

"How is he doing?" I asked, and lifted my chin in the direction of California Chrome's stall. At a few minutes before 6:30 p.m. on May 17, Chrome had held off the fast-closing- Ride On Curlin to win the Preakness by 1½ lengths. Two weeks before that he had won the Kentucky Derby, and now he is in position to end the 36-year Triple Crown drought with a victory on June 7 in the Belmont Stakes. He is the horse who matters most.

The guard squinted at the press pass dangling from my neck and the backpack slung over my shoulders. "Good, good," he said. "He's real good. Just standing up in there, real quiet." The guard paused for what seemed like a long time and then spoke again. "Alan [Sherman, son and assistant to Chrome trainer Art Sherman] told me the vet over at the other barn said he seemed like he didn't even run a race. Said he wasn't even tired." Now this was mythmaking gold: a whispered declaration of invincibility, and in the dark no less. If only there had been fog rolling in across the tops of the barns. Said he wasn't even tired! My gosh, this horse can run all day and all night. He's a running machine, that's what he is. A superhorse!

Racing loves a good legend. In 1963 the late Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton wrote this about a blindingly fast colt: "Raise a Native worked five furlongs along the backstretch at Belmont Park this morning. The trees swayed."

We can never fully know what makes a horse run fast or far, but we can know some things and imagine the rest. Sports illustrated writer William Nack wrote in 1990 that a necropsy had showed that Secretariat's heart was a third larger than any the attending veterinarian had seen, so we can imagine that was the source of Big Red's greatness. Seabiscuit's courage was real, along with Dr. Fager's speed and Zenyatta's power; their source unknown. Imagine if the horse who can end the 36-year Triple Crown drought truly doesn't tire. Imagine if that were even close to true.

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At a few minutes before 7 p.m. on Preakness Saturday, groom Raul Rodriguez walked California Chrome off the track at Pimlico as Alan Sherman struggled to carry the victor's unwieldy flower blanket of black-eyed Susans. Together they headed diagonally across the deep, loamy surface, through lengthening shadows and into an opening in the outside rail.

The first stop for Chrome was the Maryland Racing Commission's detention barn, where horses spend roughly an hour, during which they must produce a urine specimen and have blood drawn. Both samples are tested for banned substances. The supervising veterinarian is Shim Liberman, 66, a Canadian who moved to Maryland last fall to take the job at Pimlico and Laurel. Liberman, a vet since 1972, has spent much of his adult life around horses. He watched on television as Chrome headed toward his barn and noticed that the pony who met Chrome when he left the track seemed rambunctious, while Chrome was simply walking along. "It was the opposite of what you would usually see," said Liberman. "Usually it's the horse who has just raced that's difficult and the pony that's calm."

California Chrome was walked around the barn's shedrow and then given a bath in front of fans and photographers. Now Liberman watched in person and was fascinated by the 3‑year‑old colt's swift recovery from what should have been a draining endeavor. "What you usually see in a race-horse," said Liberman, "is that their nostrils are flaring, their breathing is labored, their hearts are pounding. They're just very unruly. There was a dramatic difference with California Chrome. I didn't put a stethoscope on him, but he had clearly recovered very quickly from the race. He's obviously had some very good training, because he was so normal."

Chrome has run 12 races without significant rest since his debut on April 26, 2013, an unusually relentless schedule for a modern 3‑year‑old thoroughbred. Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, by comparison, has run seven races since his debut on Aug. 31, and took an 83-day break before making his first start of 2014, on Feb. 22. (California Chrome's longest break was 57 days.) Chrome has won six consecutive races since Dec. 22, an average of one race every 25 days, and the last two were classics of the American turf. He should be tired, and the 1½ miles of the Belmont should be daunting. Or not. "All I can say," Liberman adds, "is that from what I saw at Pimlico, you've got to think they didn't get to the bottom of the barrel."

****

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At the Derby, Espinoza did not go to the whip to coax extra speed from California Chrome in the stretch.

Think of the Triple Crown as a quest. That's what it is for the breeders, owners, trainers, bloodstock agents, jockeys and bettors who participate. It's a quest for money (now, and later, in the breeding business), for fame and for some sort of enduring legacy. The quest can span decades: The Phipps family competed at the highest level of racing for nearly 90 years before finally winning the Kentucky Derby in 2013 with Orb. Or the quest can be over in a matter of weeks: War Emblem, winner of the '02 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (he finished eighth at the Belmont), was purchased 23 days before the Derby by a 43-year-old Saudi prince from an 84-year-old Chicago steel executive (who kept 10 percent of the colt) for $900,000. But the quest is always there. The sport forever has one eye trained on Louisville, Baltimore and New York City.

For a writer like me, who closely follows the Triple Crown, the quest is a vicarious chase to identify the horse, then to know it, then to understand: Why this horse? In 2003 the quest took me to Ocala, Fla., where two years earlier a horse named Funny Cide had been transformed from a colt into a gelding with a scalpel and a plierslike tool called emasculators. The vet who performed this procedure not only explained it to me but also placed my hand at the base of a horse's scrotum to help me get the picture. Five years later several horsemen tried to convince me, in good humor, that a strange white spot on Big Brown's coat was the source of his speed and stamina (when, in fact, it might have been all the steroids he was getting). Four years after that I walked inside a "stall" made of plywood and corrugated metal where I'll Have Another had lived in Florida as a yearling. All three of these horses won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; Funny Cide and Big Brown lost the Belmont; I'll Have Another was scratched with a leg injury on the day before.

This year the quest took me to California on Easter weekend to learn the story of Chrome, who had won four consecutive races, including the Santa Anita Derby, the most important of the West Coast Kentucky Derby prep races. It took me to Los Alamitos, a quarter horse racetrack in Orange County that also hosts thoroughbred racing. And it took me 250 miles north to a postage stamp of green paddocks in the undulating, parched brown hills of the drought-stricken central San Joaquin Valley.

We write about horses, and we write an almost separate, parallel narrative about the people who own, train and ride those horses, how the lives of the people and the horse came to intersect and, most pointedly, how the lives of the humans were affected -- often enriched -- by the horse. Seldom do we fully explore how the horse might have been affected by the humans. What emerged in the case of California Chrome was a story about a horse whose personality was shaped almost from birth by his hands-on relationship with people, and how his trust in those relationships might be a significant factor in what makes him a Triple Crown winner.

In the San Joaquin Valley on that April weekend I met Steve Coburn, one of the colt's two co-owners, and his wife, Carolyn, and first listened to the details of a story that has been repeated endlessly since. California Chrome is the product of a slow-footed, jittery mare named Love the Chase, whom Coburn and partner Perry Martin purchased for $8,000. (After hearing a groom call them dumb-asses for buying the mare, the two men named their stable Dumb‑Ass Partners.) Love the Chase was bred to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit for an arranged stud fee of $1,500. The foal who would be named California Chrome was born at Harris Farms Horse Division on Feb. 18, 2011.

Jeanne Bowers-Lepore grew up an equestrian in Sacramento and has been a veterinarian for 26 years, the last 17 at Harris Farms. She told me that California Chrome, whose only physical imperfection is a slightly crooked right front foot, dragged that foot across Love the Chase's uterine wall during foaling, causing extensive bleeding. Because of those injuries, the mother and foal were quarantined together for a month; Chrome nursed while Love the Chase was connected to a catheter through which she received anti-bleeding medication. Both were doted upon by the farm staff.

"All our foals are handled on a daily basis; they get their temperature taken, they get looked at, they get scratched," says Bowers-Lepore. "With Chromie it was a lot more. Someone was visiting his mother two or three times a day, and he would get right in our faces. So, you're here to see my mother. Well, here I am too. So of course you scratch him and spend time with him, too. And then the owners started giving him those cookies [the Mrs. Pasture treats that Chrome still devours], and he really liked those. He got a lot of attention, and he learned that people were good."

Bowers-Lepore has watched Chrome run since and has noticed what others have also seen: In races he moves when he's asked to move by jockey Victor Espinoza -- and only when he's asked to. "He likes to run [fast] because he's told to run [fast]," she says. "Some horses, it's fight or flight. They run, run, run, and then they're too tired to go the distance. I think all of his interactions with people, they connected with him. It's not the love of the race, it's the love of the person on his back. He listens to people and thinks, This is what [they want me to] do. He's a freak of nature."

From Harris Farms, California Chrome was sent to Southern California and entrusted to Art Sherman, now 77, a former jockey and veteran trainer who runs a relatively small, successful stable. I met Sherman early one morning at Los Alamitos. We stood on a small porch that fronts the track kitchen and watched Chrome ease through a routine gallop, and then we walked a few hundred yards back to where the colt was bathed between Sherman's two barns. Once again Chrome had fallen into the arms of a highly attentive staff. Sherman's chief assistant is Alan, 45. (Another son, Steve, 50, runs his own barn in Northern California.) Chrome's groom, Rodriguez, has been with Sherman for 12 years; Rodriguez's wife, son, brother and sister-in-law also work at the barn. Exercise rider Willie Delgado's brother Alberto was Chrome's original jockey.

"It's a family affair around here," said Art Sherman, standing in the middle of it all and then gesturing toward Chrome, who stood perfectly still, very much at home. "Look at him. He's the most laid-back horse."

Never was Chrome's trust more tested than in his fifth start, last Sept. 4, in the Del Mar Futurity for 2-year-olds. Alberto Delgado rushed Chrome into contention in tight quarters down the home-stretch, but jockey Joe Talamo, aboard Guns Loaded, accidently whacked Chrome across the face with his whip (the colt finished in sixth place). Bowers-Lepore saw the race on television. "That was the kind of incident that could discourage a horse," she said. "But not this horse. Because he trusted the people around him."

Two races later Chrome's faith was tested again when Sherman switched from Delgado to Espinoza. The 42-year-old Espinoza is a respected rider, but his business has slipped recently for no discernible reason except the whims of his clients. For several months Espinoza watched Chrome, at Del Mar and at the now shuttered Hollywood Park. He liked him. "I told my agent [Brian Beach], 'There's something about that horse, Art Sherman's horse,'" says Espinoza. "I'm not even sure what it was. I thought I would just fit him."

Beach remembers the conversation. "Certain riders just go together with certain horses," he says. "Their styles or just physically, the way the rider sits on the horse. Victor thought he was a good match with this horse."

Chrome is not only unbeaten in six races with Espinoza, but horse and rider have also been uncommonly synchronous. When Chrome tired at the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby, Espinoza reminded him to change leads. Even as Chrome habitually turns his head from side to side in the starting gate (his blinkers inhibit peripheral vision), Espinoza has taught him to break cleanly. Every small acceleration that Espinoza needs, Chrome provides. "Tremendous ability," says Espinoza. "So much talent." The colt rarely feels Espinoza's whip (just twice in the furious Preakness homestretch), instead trusting the rider's hands to guide most of his action.

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The quest arrives now at Belmont Park, always the last stop. It was here in 2004 that I knelt next to 78-year-old Roy Chapman's wheelchair before the Belmont Stakes in which his horse, Smarty Jones, would try -- and fail -- to complete the Triple Crown. "Look at that homestretch," said Chapman, waving his gnarled fingers in the air. "Look at it!" It seemed impossibly long, both then and hours later when Smarty was passed by Birdstone in the final strides, failing like all the others.

But now we know: California Chrome is different. Isn't he?

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