With a gritty, brilliant victory in the Preakness, CALIFORNIA CHROME and his blue-collar connections went from being folk heroes to something much more profound. Now the 1½ miles of the Belmont is all that stands between them and immortality
This is an article from the May 26, 2014 issue
IT WAS more than 3½ decades ago that two racehorses matched strides through the long Belmont Park homestretch under a June sun. At first they ran slowly around the oval called Big Sandy, and then they quickened in lockstep, inches separating their flaring nostrils for the last half mile, with spectators in the grandstand in full throat. A chestnut 3-year-old colt named Affirmed defeated Alydar on that afternoon, as he had done before in the Kentucky Derby and in the Preakness, and wrapped up racing's Triple Crown. At the time, the moment resonated less for that piece of historical significance than for the withering duel that preceded it, because the Triple Crown was not a rare occurrence: Affirmed's was just the 11th Triple Crown since 1919 but the third in the previous five years. Surely there would be more.
Fast-forward to another sunny spring afternoon 36 years later, this one at Pimlico, a crumbling old racetrack in Baltimore, where a fresh coat of red paint can't hide the metaphorical underpinnings of a venue aging into irrelevance. The Triple Crowns that were supposed to follow Affirmed's never came. A year passed, then five, then decades. Twelve times a horse won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and 12 times that horse did not win the Belmont. At a time when the popularity of sports in America was soaring—fueled first by an explosion of televised events and later by an even bigger explosion of digital technology—horse racing, with no central organization and no TV deals outside of the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup, remained anchored in the 1970s or, worse, the 1930s. The lack of a Triple Crown winner came to define its insignificance. It was an unfair criticism; the sport has far more holding it back than the lack of a superstar in a bridle. Yet the operative phrase became Racing needs a Triple Crown winner.
So now history beckons anew, with hope rising from the soul of an old sport. At a few minutes before 6:30 last Saturday evening, California Chrome, a chestnut colt with four white feet, a white blaze exploding across the width of his nose and a gifted rider on his back, flashed beneath the Pimlico finish wire to win the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes. The victory came two weeks after Chrome's victory in the Kentucky Derby and sends him to New York for the June 7 Belmont in pursuit of the same Triple Crown that has eluded his sport for so long.
CALIFORNIA CHROME will bring to Belmont a remarkable story, now given three more weeks of life. It is the story of an old man, small-time players and dreams of the type that can take root only at the racetrack. It is the story of 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who after nearly 60 years in racing—beginning as a pint-sized stable hand and continuing through long careers as a jockey and a trainer—is suddenly saddling a beast whose speed is beyond his wildest hopes. It is also the story of two novice owners who turned a backstretch rebuke into their stable name, Dumb-Ass Partners, and who turned the pairing of a slow-footed, modestly bred $8,000 mare and an unremarkable stallion with a $2,000 stud fee into a monster.
One of the partners, Steve Coburn, a 61-year-old press operator at a Nevada factory that makes magnetic strips for credit cards and hotel room keys, is never at a loss for words. Before the race on Saturday, he found Sherman at the barn, and when Sherman asked if he was nervous, said, "I've only crapped my pants one time." (Sherman, knowing his owner well, quipped, "He was 1-to-5 odds to say that.") After the race Coburn, whose personality grows daily, said, "We just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win." In his Stetson, he is this journey's purposefully cornpone narrator.
The other owner, 58-year-old Perry Martin, owns a testing lab outside Sacramento that evaluates products for safety and durability. He was so unnerved by the crush of media at the Kentucky Derby that he didn't attend the Preakness and was sending cellphone calls directly to voice mail well into the evening after his horse's win. The story of Coburn and Martin is reminiscent of that of the part owners of 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, six high school friends from upstate New York who traveled to Triple Crown races in a yellow school bus because they couldn't afford a nicer vehicle. But Funny Cide was purchased for $75,000, veritable sheikh's riches compared with the cost of California Chrome, who was born in the middle of California's drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley, at Harris Farms Horse Division, in a breeding shed surrounded by miles of brown, scorched earth.
Yet on Saturday at Pimlico, the day belonged not to any of the characters surrounding California Chrome but to the colt himself and to the rock-steady man sitting on his back. In five of the first six races of Chrome's career, from his debut in April 2013 through Nov. 1, Alberto Delgado had been aboard. Twice the horse won, but two times he finished sixth, and he always found trouble. "He was a lot better than his results looked," says Sherman. In mid-December, Sherman called Brian Beach, the agent for jockey Victor Espinoza, and asked if Espinoza might be interested in riding California Chrome. Espinoza had been eyeing the colt for months. "Something about him—I just liked the way he moved," says Espinoza. "I thought we would fit." He jumped at the offer. Together he and the colt won five consecutive races, including the Derby, but the Preakness presented their gnarliest challenge yet.
Chrome was assigned the number 3 post position, from which it would be important for him to break cleanly. His one foible is that he rolls his head from side to side in the starting gate, leaving him susceptible to slow starts. But Espinoza, just as he had in the Derby, aggressively urged the colt out of the gate. Most handicappers had expected that Social Inclusion and Bayern would shoot to the front and set fast early fractions. They did not. Instead, Pablo Del Monte, from the ninth post position, gunned to the front. And then, stunningly, overmatched filly Ria Antonia, who finished sixth in the Kentucky Oaks on May 2, also shot past Chrome as the field passed in front of the grandstand for the first time, forcing Espinoza to make several rapid-fire decisions.
"The one horse went by me," Espinoza said of Pablo Del Monte, "and then there's another horse that goes by. Wow, this is crazy." Espinoza tucked in behind Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia and drifted outside through the first turn, creating a clear path down the backstretch. "You get a plan in your head as to how the race will be run," says Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who analyzed the race for NBC, "and then all of a sudden it's completely upside down. That's very difficult."
As the field ran through the far turn, with more than a half mile remaining, Social Inclusion raced up on Chrome's outside. The challenge came sooner than Espinoza would have liked. "I had, like, a 10th of a second to decide what to do," said Espinoza, "so I decided to go." California Chrome quickly finished off Ria Antonia (who would finish last) and Pablo Del Monte. Social Inclusion hung alongside for nearly a quarter mile before he too was cooked. Now racing in the lead entering the top of the stretch, Espinoza might have wanted to give his mount a breather, but there was no time. As Social Inclusion fell away, Ride On Curlin launched a challenge on the far outside. Sherman told reporters on Sunday morning, "He had to be put in a drive at the half-mile pole. To me, that was pretty impressive, and coming back in two weeks. He showed a lot of courage."
Espinoza, whose cool demeanor meshes perfectly with California Chrome's, would call the tactical scenario "complicated." The jockey never did give Chrome that breather but instead rode him furiously through the lane. Chrome's Derby victory had been criticized by racing insiders as historically slow, which it was. His Preakness was fast: 1:54.84 (the fastest since Big Brown won in 1:54.80 in 2008), and he ran the final three-sixteenths of a mile in a solid 19.19, indicating that he won't wilt in the face of the long stretch at the 1½ -mile Belmont. He has raced 12 times in less than 13 months, a schedule that has given him a deep aerobic foundation and exposure to a variety of race scenarios. He is nimble enough to respond, under Espinoza's urging, to changing race tactics, and he is quick enough to avoid trouble. And he is finding believers. "That horse is one serious horse," says trainer Bob Baffert, who has been to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown three times since 1997. "I finally got a good look at him today in the paddock.... He's a stud."
THE DOZEN horses who have failed to finish the Triple Crown in New York have fallen in many ways. The great Spectacular Bid (1979) stepped on a safety pin in his stall on the morning of the race. Real Quiet ('98) was moved too quickly to the lead by jockey Kent Desormeaux and lost by a nose. War Emblem (with Espinoza up in 2002) fell almost to his knees leaving the gate. Smarty Jones ('04) had to fight off numerous challenges on the backstretch. Big Brown ('08) just stopped, for reasons that remain unexplained.
Sometimes the distance of the Belmont alone is too much, but Baffert doesn't see that as an issue for California Chrome. "He had plenty left at the end [in the Preakness]," he says. "I think he can do it. I don't see anything out there that can beat him."
There is growing suspicion that California Chrome is beating up on a weak crop of 3-year-olds. He seems sure to face a raft of challengers in the Belmont, with many of the horses coming out of the field that he beat at Churchill Downs. Derby runner-up Commanding Curve and contenders Wicked Strong, Intense Holiday and Samraat are all expected to take a shot, as will Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin. Another issue arose on the day after the Preakness, when Sherman was advised that New York officials do not allow horses to run with a nasal strip across their nose; California Chrome has worn a strip—for the same reason that people wear Breathe Right strips—since the beginning of his winning streak, at co-owner Martin's behest. Sherman told reporters on Sunday, "Perry Martin might say, Well, if I can't [use the strip], I guess I'll go to the Los Alamitos Derby [on July 5]." The issue was quickly resolved by Monday morning, when New York racing officials ruled that all horses are now allowed to run with nasal strips.
On Saturday, four hours before the Preakness, Sherman's son Alan was leaning on a wooden barrier in the Pimlico stakes barn shedrow. Behind him, Chrome stood still in a cool spring breeze. "How long is the trip to Belmont?" Alan asked a visitor. The answer, of course, is four hours by van, or 36 years on horseback.
Belmont's Denied DOZEN
Third to Coastal; stepped on safety pin morning of race
Favored at 4--5, finished third behind Summing
Fourth to Derby and Preakness rival Bet Twice
Second to Derby and Preakness runner-up Easy Goer
Second to Touch Gold after thrilling stretch drive
Second to Victory Gallop in photo finish
Third to Lemon Drop Kid; pulled up lame after wire
Eighth to Sarava after nearly falling to knees at start
Third to talented Empire Maker on sloppy track
Second to Birdstone by one length
Ninth to Da'Tara after being inexplicably eased
I'LL HAVE ANOTHER
Did not start after scratching the day before race