Before the Kentucky Derby, the owners of California Chrome turned down a bid to buy 51 percent of their colt for $6 million. The offer pegged his value at about $12 million. After California Chrome proceeded to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, trainer Art Sherman declared: “Now the horse is worth $30 million.” The owners surely expect that his value as a prospective stallion will soar further if he wins the Belmont Stakes and completes a sweep of the Triple Crown.
The reality is likely to surprise owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, as well as most casual fans of the sport. In thoroughbred racing, the big money is made when star racehorses become stallions; their sales prices typically dwarf their earnings on the track. Fusaichi Pegasus,the Kentucky Derby winner in 2000, won $2 million in competition and was sold for $60 million when he retired. But California Chrome will not generate such a windfall. No matter what he achieves on the track, the breeding industry will view him warily. “He’s going to be a tough sell,” predicted Kentucky-based bloodstock agent Tom Clark.
One of the principles in the breeding business is that horses are not judged solely on their merit as runners, but also on the basis of their family trees. It may sound un-American, but if a superior racehorse possesses an inferior pedigree, that pedigree will always be a drag on his value.
People who buy and breed thoroughbreds covet genes that have proved themselves generation after generation. They are skeptical of a successful runner who may be an outlier. At the very least, a good sire prospect needs to be the son of a high-class stallion, and he ought to come from a female line that includes good blood and some stakes winners.
Coburn has said that California Chrome “has low-cost breeding but the pedigree is there,” pointing to the presence of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Northern Dancer four or five generations back. But almost every thoroughbred has some distinguished distant ancestors. Sophisticated pedigree students do like the fact that the great, influential mare Numbered Account appears twice in the family tree.
Nevertheless, California Chrome’s pedigree may be the weakest possessed by the winner of any Triple Crown event since 1986. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, though well bred, never won a race of consequence in 22 career starts and stood for a $2,500 stud fee. His dam raced for an $8,000 price tag, and the dam’s dam was just as cheap. (The experts do say that the pedigree would look a lot better if Lucky Pulpit sired more Grade I stakes winners, proving that his son is not a genetic fluke.)
His humble origins did not prevent California Chrome from developing into an outstanding racehorse. Horses can and do surmount weak pedigrees and become champions. Snow Chief was the son of a stallion with a $2,000 stud fee and a dam who earned $2,308 racing in Mexico, but he was a brilliant racehorse who won the 1986 Preakness and 3-year-old championship. Nevertheless, he was little regarded when he went to stud, and in his career he sired only one offspring who won as much as a Grade II stakes. That’s what history tells breeders to expect. Ill-bred racehorses don’t become high-level stallions.
Even success in America’s most-famous races won’t necessarily sway the opinion of breeders. They are not mesmerized by horses who excel in the Triple Crown series. “Winning the Kentucky Derby is no guarantee of stud success,” said pedigree expert Bill Oppenheim. “Almost the reverse, in fact.” Big Brown and Smarty Jones have been recent flops at stud, even though they both won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The latter started his career in Kentucky with a $100,000 stud fee and now stands in Pennsylvania for $7,500.
The benchmark for determining a horse’s value is his fee when he first goes to stud. When a horse is retired and either syndicated or sold to a single buyer, the industry’s rule of thumb is that his value is 300 to 400 times the initial stud fee. Thus, to be worth the $30 million figure cited by his trainer (and widely quoted in the media), California Chrome would have to command a fee of $75,000 to $100,000. Will he?
The history of I’ll Have Another might shed some light on his prospects. I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness in 2012 and looked as talented as California Chrome does now. He had an excellent chance of sweeping the Triple Crown until an injury forced his retirement one day before the Belmont Stakes. His pedigree was quite respectable. His sire, Flower Alley, had won the Travers Stakes, though he was nevertheless an unfashionable stallion in the U.S. When Jamie McCalmont, bloodstock advisor to owner Paul Reddam, surveyed the domestic interest in I’ll Have Another, he received chilly responses. “He would have been able to stand for $15,000, and if he had won the Belmont it might have been $20,000,” McCalmont said. Reddam wound up selling his horse for $10 million to a farm in Japan, where his stud fee is about $35,000.
So what is California Chrome worth? Oppenheim thought he might be worth as much as $10 million now, and that the value would go up with a Belmont victory. He said, “The absolute maximum he could stand for is $50,000.” Clark said, “I don’t think he can stand for $50,000 whatever he does. I can’t imagine [a stud fee] less than $30,000. He’s a potential $10 million horse.”
This modest valuation may disappoint his owners, but it could be good news for the sport. The best colts are frequently retired as 3-year-olds so that they can cash in on their stud value, depriving thoroughbred racing of the stars it so badly needs. California Chrome has another option. If he is as good as his owners believe, his total purse earnings could soar past $10 million by March if he captures the Breeders’ Cup Classic (worth $2.75 million to the winner) and the Dubai World Cup ($6 million). Even though the breeding industry will always be skeptical of him, California Chrome can be a very valuable horse by continuing to do what he does best: run.