The story has quantum-leaped from charming to earth-moving. We now embrace the delightful possibility that California Chrome, a horse bred in a have-not world, might achieve what thoroughbred racing’s bluebloods haven’t done since 1978. Horses of this caliber typically are raised in Kentucky bluegrass country, backed by sizable investments from multi-millionaires. California Chrome comes from little money and spent his formative years in a humbler setting, by a large meat distribution plant reeking of manure stench — the other side of the track, you might say.
His modest beginnings have become an inspiration, not an impediment, now that the chestnut colt is one victory from the Triple Crown. “We just hope,’’ co-owner Steve Coburn said after winning the Preakness Stakes, “that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win.’’
“They’d better make a movie,’’ said Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer on hiatus from his retirement home.
I realize this is the 13th time since the triumph of Affirmed, 36 years ago, that our attention spans have been tickled by a horse that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Twelve times, we’ve been bummed out after a loss or a scratch at the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome could be the unlucky 13th and reconfirm a long-held theory within the industry: No horse can win three races at different distances in a five-week period while being transported from Louisville to Baltimore to New York.
And if a lengthy losing streak isn’t daunting enough, what a damned shame if this horse was derailed by … a nasal strip controversy?
Common sense would seem to dictate that the New York State Gaming Commission and the stewards of the New York Racing Association — knowing the enormous attention on a potentially historic moment June 7 — would allow California Chrome to wear a nasal strip as he has throughout his spectacular six-race romp to glory. If the horse was allowed to wear strips to aid breathing at venerable Churchill Downs and Pimlico, why not Belmont? And if strips are permitted for harness horses in New York, why not for thoroughbreds?
Sadly, there is precedent that could lead to a rejection. Two years ago, I’ll Have Another was positioned for a Triple Crown run when those very New York race stewards said the horse couldn’t wear strips in the Belmont, which may or may not have coincided with the horses’s handlers pulling him from the race with what they called a leg injury. California Chrome is owned by two guys described as Everyday Joes in the comparatively moneyed culture of Triple Crown racing. Co-owner Perry Martin, who didn’t attend the Preakness because he and his wife were stung by a lack of hospitality accorded them at the Kentucky Derby, might pull his golden horse from the Belmont if the nasal strips — Martin’s idea to begin with — are disallowed.
“This guy, Perry Martin, he might not run if they say you can’t run with a nasal strip. He’s very funny about things like that,’’ Sherman said. “The horse has been on a (six-race) winning streak with a nasal strip. I don’t know why they would ban you from wearing one. But we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there, I guess.’’
Alluding to Martin’s treatment at Churchill Downs — where officials did not do much to help his 83-year-old mother, Katherine, who lives in a nursing facility and was at the track in a wheelchair — Sherman said more slights could lead to a California Chrome no-show. “I want to tell you something: It would be very questionable that (Martin) could say, `Hey, I don’t understand why they won’t let me run (in New York). Maybe they don’t want us there,’’’ Sherman said.
“We just put (the strip) on because (Martin) is the kind of guy who likes to test (things). He thinks it’s really beneficial. … I don’t know what the deal is in New York. All over the country, they let you wear them. A lot of horses all over California wear them all the time. Maryland lets you use them. Why would New York not?’’
Oh, because horse racing might be the most dysfunctional industry in all of sports. And maybe because the horse racing establishment doesn’t want two ordinary dudes making a mockery of the sport’s so-called nobility. Said Sherman, in what sounded like a threat: “That might be a little interesting if Perry Martin says, `Well, if I can’t go, I guess I’ll go to the Los Alamitos Derby.’’ That is a much smaller race in July on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the horse’s home turf.
So far, New York officials aren’t committing one way or the other until they receive an official request from Chrome’s owners. But in a statement, the New York State Gaming Commission said there is no certainty Chrome will be allowed to use the strips: “If a request to use nasal strips is made, the decision on whether to permit them or not will be fully evaluated and determined by the Stewards.’’ According to Rule 4033.8, “Only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race.’’
I speak for America in saying, Screw Rule 4033.8
If California Chrome can’t run for history, when no one gives a gelding’s snot about thoroughbred racing except when a Triple Crown is possible, then just shut down the sport. Talk about ruining a nation’s fun just when we were believing this horse finally could be the one.
First, familiarize yourself with what the new “DAP’’ means in America. It isn’t the knocking of fists together as a sign of respect, nor is it a product used to caulk your bathtub. No, “DAP’’ is emblazoned on the purple silks of the horse with whom we’re falling in love, California Chrome, and it stands for Dumb Ass Partners, accompanied by a donkey logo.
“Dumb asses,’’ is how a trainer responded when Coburn and Martin spent $8,000 on a mare named Love the Chase, armed with a dream that she would breed a Kentucky Derby-winning horse. Not oozing of the wealth usually associated with thoroughbred owners, the partners chose to poke fun at themselves and stay true to their mission. Here in 2014, when bluebloods invest megamillions in locating super horses, Coburn and Martin really did seem like dumb asses.
That is, until California Chrome started dominating races leading up to Churchill Downs. With four routs in recent stakes events by a combined 24 lengths, Coburn and Martin were offered $6 million for a 51 percent share of the chestnut colt. The Dumb Ass Partners said no thanks and banked on what they’d seen all along with their own eyes, ignoring the daunting truth that no California-bred horse had won the Derby in 52 years and that winning the race would be akin to a bum crashing a wide-brimmed-hat society party.
“The first time we saw him, we knew it was going to be something special,’’ Coburn said. “We’re going to go down in history.’’
The question now is how much history. In winning the Derby in an impressive backstretch romp, then the Preakness by storming from third place and charging past Ride On Curlin for the victory, California Chrome — would you believe the sire in this breeding process cost only $2,500? — may end up as the most cost-efficient champion in the history of sports. Go ahead and give Miguel Cabrera a $292 million extension. Go ahead and spend $1.5 billion to buy the Los Angeles Clippers once Donald Sterling comes to his senses and goes away. If this horse wins the Triple Crown, with the oldest championship trainer ever and a jockey (Victor Espinoza) who grew up driving a bus in Mexico City, well, I suspect some Kentucky bluebloods will reconsider the money they’re wasting. And before someone asks, no, the Dumb Ass Partners aren’t pulling this off with advanced metrics. Coburn reports to a factory, where helps make magnetic strips on the back of credit cards. Martin runs a testing lab near Sacramento.
You could have downed 15 Mint Juleps and not concocted this story. Would you believe the blue-collar horse has won six straight races by 27 1/2 total lengths?
“I don’t mean to be bold or cocky or arrogant,” said Coburn, wiping away tears with his bandana in Baltimore. “I saw this baby when he was a day old, I told my wife, `Carolyn, this horse is going to do something big. I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to stay in the game to make sure this colt is the best that he can be.’ ‘’
I think we gave up on Triple Crown winners about five years ago. Can California Chrome, with its Everyman entourage, make history of the epic sort? “You have to have a very good horse to win these three races,’’ Sherman said. “I’m hoping I’ve got one right now.’’
Coburn doesn’t hope. He has been saying for weeks that he just knows. “If you don’t believe in this horse now,’’ he said, “then you’ve got to have your head examined.’’
By the way, anyone seen that bigmouth trainer lately? The Dumb Ass Trainer?
He’s probably plotting something devious with The Dumb Ass Stewards.