I spent much of May and June this year exploring the wonders of the east coast of the USA - including the thoroughbred racing scene. During that time a wonder horse called California Chrome lit up the American racing world like no other galloper has in decades. Horse racing in the USA has a long and rich history. The first racetrack was constructed in 1665 on Long Island in present day New York – over one hundred years before Captain Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to sight the eastern coast of Australia.
In the United States, thoroughbred races are run on surfaces of either dirt, synthetic or turf. The famed Triple Crown events, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes are all run on dirt tracks. In a golden era of American racing during the 1970’s, three great horses won the Triple Crown – Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Since that time the crown has gone unclaimed. In the ensuing 36 years racing has for the most part been in the doldrums.
As a sign of the poor condition of the industry, the majority of off track betting shops in New York were closed in late 2010 because they were unprofitable. December 2013 saw the end of an era when the famous Hollywood Park racetrack in California was closed to make way for land uses that would provide the owners with better returns - housing units and an entertainment venue.
Enter California Chrome - a horse stabled near the HollywoodPark track and with movie star looks to match. Even a script writer would be hard pressed to dream up the scenario that launched this flashy youngster onto the racing stage. How about this? - A $2,500 mare named Love The Chase nearly dies giving birth to a chestnut colt. The mare is nursed back to health in her stall and all the while her growing colt is beside her, lapping up the care, love and attention being bestowed upon them.
Owner Steve Coburn, who works as a press operator in a factory and his co-owners (wife Carolyn and Perry and Denise Martin) put the youngster in the care of an old school 77 year old trainer Art Sherman who has never had a Kentucky Derby runner. They then engage jockey, Victor Espinosa, the son of a poor Mexican goat farmer to ride the horse. Together they hatch a plan for their steed to take on the blue bloods of the racing world and to win the Kentucky Derby, worth a cool $2.2 million.
That last day at the HollywoodPark racetrack also heralded the start of something exciting and new – for at that final meeting at the course California Chrome, which had been unplaced at its previous two starts, came out and won the Listed King Glorious Stakes in dominant fashion by over 6 lengths. Then followed a victory in the Listed California Cup Derby by 5.5 lengths, a jaw dropping 7.5 length win in the Grade 2 San Filipe Stakes and success in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby where he blew his rivals away to score by 5.25 lengths.
Suddenly the racing and the wider world were taking notice. An offer of $10 million was reportedly made for the horse prior to the Kentucky Derby. It was turned down. The American public soon became hungry for any news they could get about this underdog which took on the big guys and beat them - a horse from modest beginnings which had risen to great heights, which represented hope, grand possibilities and even the realization of the American Dream. As co-owner Denise Martin commented after the Santa Anita Derby win, “He’s not our horse anymore – he’s the people’s horse”.
“He’s not our horse anymore – he’s the people’s horse”.
(Owner Denise Martin)
The first leg of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs in the first week of May. A near record crowd of 164,906 racing fans flocked to the course with the hope of witnessing something special. That day California Chrome made an indelible impression on the minds of American racing followers when his jockey Victor Espinoza shot the horse five lengths clear of his 18 rivals in the home stretch before easing him down to win easily by just under two.
Now he was ‘the peoples' horse’, the media reported California Chrome's every move. When he was noticed coughing after a track gallop prior to running in the Preakness Stakes, speculation became rife that the horse was not well and soon ‘Throat Gate’ was being discussed everywhere.
Lining up for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, run at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore, the horse was aiming for his sixth victory in succession. And win he did - fending off the challengers to take out the 139thrunning of the $1.5 million event. By now California Chrome had captured the imagination of the nation. Songs were soon being written about him, fan clubs were formed and marketing deals were done - one of them promotingSketchers shoes (I even bought a pair of the shoes – after all they were endorsed by a great horse!).
After the Preakness Stakes victory, in the three weeks leading up to the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, the American media went into a frenzy over California Chrome. Newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA today, the New York Post and others all featured stories about the horse on their front as well as back pages. NBC, CNN and other television networks highlighted the horse in their breakfast programs, talk shows, and nightly news services. People who didn’t know one end of a horse from the other discussed California Chrome and his winning chances.
When it became apparent that California Chrome wore a nasal strip to assist his breathing in races, but that they were banned by the New York Racing Association, the NYRA changed the rules to ensure the horse would line up in the final leg of the Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes in New York.
On Saturday, June 7th, with the hopes of the nation riding on him to become the first horse in nearly four decades to take out the Triple Crown, California Chrome headed to BelmontPark racetrack. That day cab drivers, shop assistants, people on street - just about everybody wanted to talk about and talk up California Chrome’s chances of completing his quest for the Holy Grail. By mid afternoon 102,199 people had battled two hour traffic jams, crowded trains and buses to see history in the making at BelmontPark – the largest dirt thoroughbred racetrack in the world.
“This horse was sent down from the heavens to us”
(Owner Steve Coburn).
As the field jumped in the Belmont Stakes jockey Victor Espinosa already felt that something wasn’t right. He wasn't to know that Matterhorn, the horse in the adjoining stall to California Chrome, had accidentally stepped on the horse’s right front heel as they jumped, taking out tissue, cutting the tendon slightly and drawing blood. Despite the significant injury, California Chrome tried his heart out, looming up wide to the leaders 300 metres from home and momentarily looking a winning chance before succumbing to his injury in the final tense, high pressure moments of the event. The three year old exhausted, covered in sweat and with blood flowing from his heel headed back to the mounting yard having given his all - and then some. California Chrome officially finished a dead heat for fourth in the race behind the 9/1 winner Tonalist.
Once the final result became apparent, tens of thousands of people in the grandstands and down on the grass sat or stood in eerie silence. There was a feeling in the crowd that something wasn’t quite right. What may have been, hopes and dreams had faded. Shortly afterwards, as a group they began to move towards the exit gates. Ahead of them was a solemn, reflective drive back into Queens or along the Cross Island Parkway to Manhattan. For those heading home on the packed buses and train carriages, the conversations were even more muted than usual.
What those 102,000 plus racegoers didn't know at the time, was that California Chrome had run the entire 2400 metre journey of the Belmont Stakes with a serious injury, and that they may have just witnessed his bravest performance yet – a heroic effort that will only add to his legend.
California Chrome is presently having a well earned farm rest and is to be prepared for a tilt at the richest race in the United States, the $5 million Breeder’s Cup in November 2014 at Santa Anita Park - the scene of some of his biggest wins.
By Mark Hall Aussieraces.com July 2014