We don’t fall in love with athletes anymore, surely because they’ve bamboozled us too often. But a horse? He can’t fire a murder weapon, lie about his image, bed a porn star or take a performance enhancing drug, at least knowingly. And when the horse is a beautiful chestnut colt named California Chrome, part of a working-class fantasy that required an original outlay of only $10,500, then it becomes our American duty to root for this godsend and the tandem of Average Joe owners who’ve told the thoroughbred racing aristocracy to put their bluegrass in their pipes and smoke it.
It was vital on a sunny Saturday at Belmont Park, site of so many Triple Frowns, to see this horse end the procession of well-chronicled failures and become Triple Chrome. We’ve watched 12 supposed super horses over the last three and a half decades win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, only to gas out on the longer 1 1/2-mile track at Belmont Park and fail to win the Triple Crown. I was there when Big Brown stopped running. Maybe you recall when Smarty Jones came up excruciatingly short, Charismatic broke an ankle and Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. We’ve come to expect the big crash in New York, where the new strategy to thwart a Triple Crown — and a cowardly strategy, at that — was to skip the Preakness and have Chrome’s challengers well-rested for the Belmont. Among the dubious, well-rested parties were Commanding Curve (second place in the Derby), Wicked Strong (fourth) and Samraat (fifth).
Why? If you can’t win the Oscar at Churchill Downs, then try to sabotage the afterparty.
Or liken it to the Indianapolis 500, as Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn did to USA Today. “Everybody comes in for the last pit stop, and you’ve got one lap to go, and then a super-charged Volkswagen gets up there and wins the race,’’ Coburn said. “Now how fair is that? He’s not racing the race.
“I think triple means three. But then we have horses who don’t do good in the Kentucky Derby and sit out the Preakness and come back in the Belmont. Then you have horses that are nominated for the Triple Crown but stay out of the first two to come back and upset the apple cart. I just think if you’re nominated for the Triple Crown, if you can’t make enough points to get in the Kentucky Derby, you can’t (get) in these races, none of them. It’s all or nothing … That’s why there’s been so many horses that have the ability to win the Triple Crown that haven’t, simply because of these rules.”
Scandalized by dubious drug-testing rules and clouded by a strong sense that horses are collapsing and dying because they are pumped with drugs, horse racing has deteriorated into a non-sport at least 46 weeks a year. They only time we pay attention is through a mint-julep haze at a Derby party, followed by a peek-in at the Preakness to see if the Derby winner wins again. If so, we gear up for a three-week media barrage centering on hopes and dreams and the back stories of people we’ve never seen before and likely won’t see much again.
But this back story is particularly appealing. Coburn works in a Nevada factory where magnetic strips are placed onto credit cards. His partner, Perry Martin, runs a lab on the outskirts of Sacramento. They entered racing on a whim, far from the bluebloods willing to spend millions on super horses at Keeneland and other prestigious Kentucky farms, and they got started at Blinkers On Racing Stable, a syndicate that allows half-serious horse buffs to invest small amounts. Together, they invested in Love the Chase, a filly so underwhelming that a training groom told Coburn and Martin that anyone interested would be “a dumbs.’’ Hence, they became known as Dumb Ass Partners, which is why you see “DAP’’ emblazoned on California Chrome’s silks.
They’ve had fun throughout their joyride, rejecting offers approaching $10 million before the Derby. On race eve, Coburn couldn’t contain his optimism. “I’ve said this horse is going to win a Triple Crown, and I’m saying it again: This horse is going to win a Triple Crown,’’ he told the media. “I guarantee it.’’
Awaiting California Chrome, with the long-awaited prize, would be a potential for massive riches. Hollywood people have been lining up for weeks, drooling over the perfect convergence of all-demographics elements: everyday guys defying the bluebloods … a spectacular horse, overcoming a humble upbringing in a colorless, drought-ridden, stench-filled ranch beside a meatpacking plant … history finally being made after so many other Triple Crown attempts have fallen short. How much money? Including the breeding sale? Hundreds of millions, conservatively.
The best ending would have Coburn and Martin taking no money from Hollywood, letting the story tell itself forever and then returning to their jobs as if they’d simply been on vacation.
The DAP boys want no dap. They proved their point long ago.