ELMONT, N.Y. — He had already had his morning workout, his bath, his cool-down and his breakfast, and now it was time for California Chrome’s star turn. Shortly before 7:30 a.m. Friday, he emerged from the shadows of Barn 26 at Belmont Park, led by a groom, and out into the cool morning sunshine, draped in a regal purple blanket with his name across the side.
The groom waited until the circle of hangers-on, gawkers and fawning fans — including an exercise rider of a rival horse — had taken their places, cameras in hand, then pulled gently on Chrome’s reins to turn him so that everyone could get the proper angle for their pictures. At each quarter-turn, the colt stopped and posed, thrusting his right foreleg forward, like a runway model.
Here, some 36 hours before the biggest moment of his life, was the perfect superstar to provide a boost to the sport of horse racing — a gorgeous chestnut colt with white-socked feet, a champion’s cool disposition and a classic, rags-to-riches back story. Now all California Chrome has to do is deliver.
On Saturday evening in the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes, California Chrome, the $10,000 miracle horse from a one-horse stable that took its name — Dumb Ass Partners — from an overheard breeding-barn put-down, will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in the sport’s history, and the first since Affirmed in 1978. It is a pursuit that has riveted the sport, with upwards of 120,000 fans expected to pack Belmont Park to witness this stab at history.
“Thirty-six years, and nobody’s won the Triple Crown — it’d be quite an honor,” said Art Sherman, a 77-year-old former journeyman jockey who is Chrome’s trainer. “If you would have said to me [at] the first of the year that I would be on the Triple Crown trail, I would say, ‘You’re kidding me.’ So here I am, hoping that we can get the final race. It would mean a lot to racing, I can tell you that.”
Twelve times since Affirmed, horses have arrived in New York having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and with a chance to complete the Triple Crown. Twelve times they have failed — most recently in 2012, when I’ll Have Another was retired with an injury the day before the Belmont. The others were outrun or outmaneuvered, or they stumbled or pulled up. Some of the losses were chalked up to jockeys who fired too early, others to insufficient breeding. In other cases, no logical explanation suffices, as if the Triple Crown simply wasn’t meant to be.
But if there truly is an element of the unknown — call it mystery, whim, luck, fate or destiny — that sorts out the winners from the losers in horse racing, that may be the best reason of all to think California Chrome may be The One. There simply is no explanation, at least none rooted in fact or precedent, for how he rose from his humble beginnings to the cusp of immortality.
“To watch this little guy grow up and watch him develop — he’s an amazing animal,” said Steve Coburn, Chrome’s co-owner. “I wish every horse owner out there could have a horse like this because he's like one in a bazillion. This horse could have been born to anybody. He was born to us, and we're very blessed with that.”
California Chrome was born on Feb. 18, 2011, in Coalinga, Calif., to an undistinguished mare named Love the Chase, whom Coburn and partner Perry Martin had purchased for just $8,000. They paid a $2,000 stud fee to breed her to an equally undistinguished stallion named Lucky Pulpit. With an estimated 25,000 throroughbred foals born that year, what were the chances this one, bred from such common stock, would grow up to be the greatest of them all? That initial $10,000 investment has produced a champion now worth tens of millions.
“Once in awhile, there’s a gene that passes through a horse that [makes him] extra special,” Sherman said. “I don’t know why, but one turns out to be a runner, and I just think that everything went right.”
Chrome’s connections have constructed a riveting legend around their miracle horse, one full of prophetic dreams and outlandish goals. “The Road to the Derby” was the header of an e-mail Martin sent to Sherman, laying out a prospective racing schedule for Chrome before the horse had set foot on a racetrack. Lately, the connections have taken to calling him “the People’s Horse” or “America’s Horse.” More accurate would be to call him “California’s Horse” — no other California-bred horse had ever won the Derby and the Preakness before Chrome did.
Though Chrome is a 3-5 morning-line favorite, the facts suggest he is beatable, particularly out of a less-than-ideal No. 2 post position. His wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — by 1 ¾ lengths and 1 ½ lengths, respectively — were solid if not spectacular, both of them coming on conspicuously ideal, danger-free trips. “He’s just had two beautiful, perfect trips,” said Dallas Stewart, trainer of Commanding Curve. “I mean, we dream about having those types of trips in big racing events.” But they were also Chrome’s fifth and sixth consecutive wins, all of them coming since veteran jockey Victor Espinoza took the mount.
“If he does get beat, I mean, all horses get beat sooner or later,” Sherman said of Saturday’s race. “Something can happen — we all know, being in the races. But I feel good about this race. He’s coming into it perfect, and I think the people that are running against him have to worry about him, not me worry about any of the other horses.”
California Chrome will be racing for the third time in five weeks — a breakneck schedule no one would dare attempt any other time of year — against rivals who are more rested, including eight who skipped the Preakness, an increasingly popular strategy. The Belmont’s grueling distance — 1 ½ miles, longer than any other Grade 1 stakes in North America — presents another unknown factor, since none of the 11 entrants have raced at that distance.
But California Chrome and his connections have never let the facts get in the way of his legend. In horse racing, sometimes great champions of May lose for no apparent reason in June, and sometimes a foal born from humble stock far from the blue blood and bluegrass of Kentucky grows into an immortal.