Poets on Sports

California Chrome: Can He Do It?


by Karissa Morton

Let’s start at the start: the Triple Crown is a BIG DEAL. In the history of racing, there have only been eleven horses who’ve won the TC–& no horse has won it since Affirmed in 1978. The 70s were an awesome period for racing fans—they got Secretariat in ’73, Seattle Slew in ’77, & Affirmed in ’78. I used to have pictures of Secretariat on my wall, & I’ve watched his races on Youtube so many times I more or less have them memorized. He not only won the TC, he set the time record for each of the three TC races.

There’ve been a number of horses in this generation who’ve won both the Kentucky Derby & the Preakness, but who’ve fallen short when it comes time to take the crown. There were horses in ’97, ’98, ’99, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’08, & ’12 who pulled the first two races but couldn’t win the Belmont. The thing is, even with I’ll Have Another’s strong Churchill Downs & Preakness showings back in 2012, I don’t remember as much Triple Crown talk surrounding him as now surrounds California Chrome, so my question is why. Why is everyone so into California Chrome? What makes him different?

Well, we all want him to win. More specifically, I want him to win. A lot of the focus on California Chrome has been on his backstory. His owners & breeders, Perry Martin & Steve Coburn, bought his dam, Love the Chase, for only $8,000. They, along with his trainer, Art Sherman, make up the racing team known as “DAP,” short for “Dumb Ass Partners.” Love the Chase made less money in her single race win than the team paid for her, leading many to question their sanity in the purchase–hence the team name.

One of my favorite parts of the story is the notoriously patient Art Sherman, who comes off in interviews as America’s grandpa. He grew up at Churchill Downs, working as a teenager as the exercise rider for Swaps, the famed horse who won the Derby in the 50s. When asked about his relationship with California Chrome, he answers modestly, putting the spotlight on the horse rather than on himself.

It’s such a rags-to-riches story that California Chrome has earned the nickname “the people’s horse.” The DAP team really loves California Chrome—repeatedly turning down offers in the $2 million range. Coburn has been optimistic from the beginning of California Chrome’s season, being open about his expectations that he could very well win the Triple Chrome.

Besides the fascinating team, California Chrome’s personality is the other thing that draws people to him. He acts like a pet—he will reportedly only eat one specific brand of horse cookies, he’s curious & playful, actively poses for cameras, & opens his mouth as if he’s smiling when people are around him. He’s an anxious little guy—sometimes rocking back & forth in the gate, & notably refusing to exit his van normally—he’ll only walk out backward.

All of this said, statistically, California Chrome shouldn’t win the Triple Crown. Besides his pedigree, in the last 12 years, only one horse has won the Belmont after competing in both the Derby & the Preakness. Note: this isn’t after winning. It’s after running at all. Running these three races in rapid succession takes its toll on a horse, no matter how talented or athletic he is. Critics who dismiss California Chrome are quick to note that at Churchill Downs, he stayed out of traffic, which is why he won. Even given this, however, he is fast & highly maneuverable, not dissimilar to the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.

Additionally, according to his detractors, California Chrome’s wins at the Derby & the Preakness weren’t landslides. At Churchill, he only won by 1 ¾ lengths, & at the Preakness, he won by 1 ½ lengths to a horse with a then-0-&-7 record. He doesn’t have the TC on lock in the same way a horse like Secretariat did, but that doesn’t stop racing greats from jumping on the California Chrome bandwagon. Tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes will be packed to the brim with racing royalty. The owners & jockeys of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, & Affirmed are all planning on attending, hoping to see history in action thanks to California Chrome.

With this kind of hype, it’s hard to bet against him. Add in the superstition surrounding his comparisons to Secretariat (the two horses drew the exact same post positions at the Derby, the Preakness, & Belmont), & most people treat a Triple Crown win as a sure thing.

I want it to be. I don’t remember the last time I’ve wanted something sports-related to happen this badly. Yes, I sobbed like a child when Iowa State, Duke, & Syracuse each got beaten during March Madness this year. I cried a lot during Iowa football season. I cried even more for my fantasy team. But let me tell you, if California Chrome wins the Triple Crown tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee I’ll collapse onto the floor in a sobbing mess.

Right now, it’s hard to tell the likelihood of that happening, though. Odds are a tough thing with this race. As Randall Lane explains over at Forbes, California Chrome has created one of the biggest underlays in history. He’s currently sitting at 3-5 odds, which means if you bet $5 on him, you’ll end up getting your $5 back, plus only $3 extra. This ratio positions him at a 66% chance of winning, which doesn’t really make sense, statistically speaking.

If he doesn’t pull it out, I could almost guarantee it’ll be because of the distance–in other words, I could see him starting strong & leading the pack for a good 3/4 of the race, but falling back to second or so (I don’t imagine him finishing anywhere behind third) just before the final stretch. He’s the fastest horse in the field, but Belmont is long. It’s not a sprint—it’s a marathon, & his narrow finishes at the Derby & the Preakness could be indicative of issues with distance.

If that happens & California Chrome falls short, my bet is that it’ll be to one of these four horses (in order of likelihood):

  1. Wicked Strong. He’s sired from distance runners, he has extra rest because he didn’t participate in the Preakness, & was California Chrome’s main pre-Derby competition, but had a poor post position.
  2. Commanding Curve. He finished second to California Chrome at the Derby & is historically better with longer lengths—like the Belmont track.
  3. Ride on Curlin. He’s great at rallying, as he did at both Churchill & the Preakness, & is sired from Curlin, who won the Preakness in ’07 & also sired last year’s Belmont winner, Palace Malice. His line of stallions has won 14 of the past 18 Belmonts.
  4. Tonalist. He has triple the rest of California Chrome, is a strong runner, & owned the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

That said, I’m still pulling for California Chrome, & while—if you’re a betting person—he’s not going to have the highest returns, this is one race where money & odds aren’t the top priority. All-in-all, he’s an extremely strong, talented horse, & may very well live up to the hype. I for one hope he does.

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2014 by and tagged , , , , , , .
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