Crazy About Chrome

California Chrome makes people fall in love with racing again

The world currently seems a little ‘Chrome Crazy’ and to be honest, who can blame them. California Chrome comes with the kind of wholesome, Disney feel-good story that racing desperately needs right now. And it would be schmaltz if it wasn’t all cross-my-heart true.

A first foal, by a cheap stallion, out of a cheap mare, owned by a small group of starry-eyed owners, conditioned by a 77 year old trainer in a mom and pop outfit at an obscure Quarter Horse track, this story has so many magical angles that you couldn’t make it up if you tried. And if you ever did make up something as totally cheesy as this, no-one would believe it could be true.

But it is. And the more you delve into it, the more magical it becomes. I think one of my favourite parts of the story is the faith co-owner Steve Coburn has had in the horse, right from before he was even born. The story goes that a few days before their mare foaled down, Coburn dreamt the foal would be a big chestnut with four white socks and a big white face. When they went to see the new born foal, his wife Carolyn was the first to take a look. She called her husband over and said simply, “There’s your dream.” Steve replied, “We better hang on to this ride, because it’s going to be a good one. And no matter what we have to do to keep him healthy and in the game, we’re gonna do it.”

Dream big

Ever since that day on the 18th of February 2011, Coburn has believed in that dream. When the horse was backed and ready to start work, the ‘Dumb Ass’ partners approached Art Sherman to train their ‘Derby horse’ because they liked that he was old school. They presented him with a schedule of races that would get them to Churchill Downs. When they received an offer of $6 million for a 51% controlling share after his Gr2 San Felipe Stakes, they turned it down, because the purchaser wanted to move the horse to a different trainer. California Chrome repaid their faith by winning the Gr1 Santa Anita Derby and earned them another offer. This time running to eight digits. Coburn responded “Last week, my answer was ‘no,’ and this week, my answer is ‘hell, no.’’ That’s fighting talk from folks who consider themselves ‘working class people’, but Coburn is resolute, “This is my dream, and you can’t put a price on a dream.” The partners have ploughed blood, sweat, tears and most of their savings into their horse, so Mr Coburn can be forgiven for being a little emotional when Chrome came home lonely on Saturday, 3 May 2014. The day of the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. And Steve Coburn’s 61st birthday.

Art Sherman was famously the exercise rider for Swaps (another Cal-bred), and travelled all the way to Kentucky with him in a box car back in 1955, the year Swaps won the Derby. When ‘Team Chrome’ arrived in Kentucky, Art went to visit the grave of his beloved Swaps and sent up a prayer that California Chrome might be good enough to win. Swaps was listening.

“He gave me the biggest thrill I ever had in my life,” said Sherman, now the oldest trainer ever to win the Derby. “You think about it, that you’re going to get lucky one day, but maybe it’s all fate somehow. I’m a big believer in fate. I just didn’t think something like this would happen to me, at this stage of my career. I rode for 23 years and loved it. Now this (referring to all the media). I like this. I’m having fun,” he said. “This Jerry Bailey guy [Hall of Fame jockey and TV racing analyst], he could be in trouble. I think of all my friends who have died who are watching, and they’re all saying, ‘We wish you the best of luck, Art.’ I’m so thankful that I’m here. I have a lot of friends at the racetrack and I’ve been around a long time. But I’m still the same old Art Sherman…except I won the Kentucky Derby.”

Time doubts

After the Kentucky Derby, there were a lot of doubters and people warned that the time was slow. It caused lively debate, but as Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg once said “time only matters when you’re in jail.” Another big name, Charlie Whittingham asked whether he was concerned about Sunday Silence’s slow time in the 1989 Derby once replied: “No, all the rest of the horses were behind him.”

The Preakness

Sherman was pretty confident going into the Preakness. He said he had great respect for the other nine entries in the run for the Black-Eyed Susans, but added, “I’d hate to be in somebody else’s shoes for this one.” The 139th running of The Preakness Stakes took place over 1900m on Saturday, 17 May 2014 for a purse of $1,500,000. Ogden Nash once wrote that “The Derby is a race of aristocratic sleekness, for horses of birth to prove their worth to run in the Preakness.” California Chrome proved his worth all right. I have a bit of a soft spot for Ride On Curlin and was thrilled to see him swooping down the straight, but Chrome was in the zone, moving with that wonderfully smooth rhythm and you just knew he had it all under control. He also silenced his critics about the time, finishing in a very respectable 1:54.84. The US Triple Crown has some wonderful traditions around each race and the Preakness is no exception. As soon as the result is declared, someone is dispatched to the top of the Clubhouse copula to paint the weather vane (a horse and rider) with the colours of the winner’s silks. The colours stay there until the winner is declared the following year. The Preakness is also called the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans. The Black-Eyed Susan is Maryland’s state flower. However, it doesn’t bloom until later in the year, so the victory blanket is made of Viking poms, a member of the chrysanthemum family instead.

Chrome’s people

Summerhill posted a pic of Steve Coburn hugging his colt after the Preakness with the comment “think California Chrome is loved by his people.” And he is. From his owners who love feeding him Mrs Pasture’s Cookies (horse treats), to his exercise rider, William Delgado (the brother of Chrome’s first jockey, Alberto) who is regularly seen petting and hugging his horse, to his groom, Raul Rodriguez (who now has his own video, courtesy of the Bloodhorse). Coburn paid effusive tribute to Rodriguez on Saturday “He sleeps with this horse every night, his wife’s a little upset, but he don’t care.” Even his jockey is super nice and donates 10% of all his earnings to City of Hope, a charity that benefits children suffering from cancer, making Chrome’s success even more meaningful.

I think half the appeal is that these are just totally normal, NICE people. In the run up to the Derby, when things were getting a little hairy, Sherman said “It’s been wild and woolly, I can tell you that. I call him the rock star and I’m just his manager. People knock his pedigree, but there are a lot of knockers out there. To me, a runner is a runner. He’s the people’s horse. He’s fun to be around and the people love him.”

And that’s exactly what it feels like. Their story is so unlikely, that it could just as easily have happened to any of us and it has captivated the world. In fact, I don’t know anyone who ISN’T talking about California Chrome right now. He is indeed the people’s horse and these days his people are EVERYWHERE. There’s even a name for them now – Chromies. People send him wishes and post messages on his Facebook page and everyone has taken this horse, this story and these people completely to heart. I trawled some of the (many!) messages on the various forums after his Derby win:-

“The tears were flowing everywhere all over this country when he crossed that finish line. Usually by Sunday afternoon, most everyone has finished discussing the Derby, but not this time. People are still buzzing about it. That is just the impact this dream come true story has on everyone. This is the American Dream story and the players, all of them are just like the people that live next door.”

“I am the little guy with the “cheap” horse. I was SO rooting for him to win; and, it was magical when he did. I have been so close to getting out of this business completely but, after watching this race, I am encouraged to keep trying for another 100 years. I hope he goes all the way.”

Feel good factor

We couldn’t buy this sort of publicity with a hundred Max Cliffords. After the PETA expose, racing and its people were pariahs. Now folk are booking tickets from all over the US, if not the world, to watch a horse race. Chrome did that. He seems to leave a little gloss on everything he touches and he’s given everyone a reason to feel good about racing at a time when we all need it most.

I love this horse and I love this story, but even if I didn’t, the simple fact that he is making racing current, accessible and front page news again is enough for me to vote California Chrome for president. From being vilified after the PETA expose, racing suddenly has a poster boy. A beautiful, totally wholesome and accessible poster boy. And people love him.

2014 Belmont Stakes

2014 Belmont Stakes

When it transpired that Chrome might not be allowed to wear his Flair Nasal Strip for his Belmont run, there was a veritable outrage. The NYRA were asked to allow a Flair strip for I’ll Have Another in 2012 and the matter hung in the balance right up until the horse scratched. Chrome won the Preakness on Saturday and 2 days later we received news that NY State Steward Steve Lyndowski had approved the use of the strip. And well done NYRA and well done American racing for really grabbing this story and running with it. Before the sun set on Saturday evening, the Belmont guys had already prepared a poster and marketing slogan – Go Big and Go Chrome – in his green and purple colours of course.

Can they win the Belmont? Obviously it’s a big ask. Mike Pegram, co-owner of Santa Anita Derby runner-up Hoppertunity spoke to Coburn ahead of the Derby “I told him, ‘Steve, you just don’t know how hard this race is to win. You have no idea.’ He’s talking Triple Crown. He’s really enjoying it, and he’s a nice man, but he just doesn’t realize what he’s in for.” But they’ve won two hard races now.

To date, thirty-four horses, including Chrome, have won the Derby and the Preakness, but 22 of those fell short in the Belmont. Where Chrome finishes up we’ll find out on 7 June.

They said he couldn’t win the Derby. Then they said he’d be found out in the Preakness. Now they’re saying Chrome won’t handle the heat and humidity in New York. But as Art Sherman is fond of saying ‘A runner’s a runner.’ And I’m in the mood for dreaming….

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