You can keep waiting for cyborgs, the Cubs, Bigfoot, better health care, time travel, a leaner Lena Dunham, reduced CEO bonuses and other zero-probability events. But why? Why embrace pipe dreams? Why continue to be whisked on a periodic Triple Crown joyride in thoroughbred racing, higher and higher each time, only to witness the same sad ending at the same ancient New York track while the same TV network commentators bemoan another supposed superhorses’s fate?
Victor Espinoza probably is still beating California Chrome with that whip, all for naught. At some point, maybe we should stop being sucked in by the hype and find another diversion on the first Saturday afternoon of June. The famous proverb, I believe, is “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’’ Or, if you prefer the great philosopher Roger Daltrey, “We won’t get fooled again, no no.’’ Well, we’ve now been fooled 13 times — by Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another and, now, California Chrome, which never made its patented charge down the stretch and finished the Belmont Stakes in a tie for fourth.
“As soon as he came out of the gate, he was not the same,” said the jockey Espinoza. “He was empty.’’
Was it the bloody laceration on his right front hoof, a quarter crack suffered early in the race? Was it the continuing cherry-picking strategy of rival horses that don’t participate in either the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes — the winner, Tonalist, sat out both races — so they can be better rested as spoilers and look better at the breeding sale? Was it a premeditated gang-up on Chrome, owned by two common guys looked down upon by the sport’s bluebloods? Was it all of those things?
Truth is, it’s always something. And I’m tired of waiting.
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 became our American duty to root for this godsend and the tandem of Average Joe owners who’ve told the 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, for this horse to 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 Crown’s first two legs, only to gas out on the longer 1 1/2-mile track in Queens. 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 before the race. “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.”
After his fears were confirmed by Tonalist, a 9-1 longshot who last raced on May 10 at this very track, Coburn went on a verbal rampage about the sit-out tactics, referring to those horses and their handlers as “cheaters.’’
“That’s the coward’s way out,” he said. “It’s not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don’t make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can’t run in the other two races. It’s all or nothing.
“Our horse had a target on his back.’’
He has a point. Some horse owners are more interested in the breeding fees than the Crown, knowing the grueling, three-race grind takes a grim toll on history’s aspirants. “When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn’t respond,” said assistant trainer Alan Sherman, son of the 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman. “He was wore out, I think.”
“He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever ridden,” Espinoza said, “but it’s tough for California Chrome to come back in three weeks and a run a mile and a half.”
Do I hear an echo? How many times have we heard that after the Belmont?
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.
This back story was 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 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.’’
With the Crown, California Chrome would have been set up for riches. Hollywood people had 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? Tens of millions, conservatively.
But, as usual, the story fizzled. “The horse tried, that’s all I can ask for,’’ Sherman said. “He took me on the ride of my life, I’ll always have that in my heart for that horse.’’
Let the horse community debate the “coward’’ controversy. Personally, I think we’re a bunch of dumb asses for continuing to watch this exercise in guaranteed futility.