Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
ELMONT, N.Y. – The cocktail-hour post time of 6:47 p.m. was just right for that informal creature California Chrome and his casual handlers. The barns of most Triple Crown contenders on the day of the Belmont Stakes are pin-drop quiet and buttoned up tight. But the low-born colt and his people didn’t do that; instead, they opened the door and drank beer and unbuttoned their lips. They entertained flurries of visitors, ladies in colorful sheath dresses with frothy hats and men in crumpled linen blazers who poked cameras in the stable window to snap pictures. At lunchtime, a couple of hands brought in some large barrels of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the assistant trainer took a pull on a Corona. And when it was all over, the red-faced, big-hatted owner shot his plain-spoken mouth off.
The warm, cloudless June day dragged on with little sense of grand occasion because a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes was such a long, long shot for the cheap horse and his out-of-nowhere owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, the self-titled “Dumb Ass Partners” who begot him for 10 grand, less than the down payment on a Honda with no specials. Everybody half-knew before the race ever went off that the $1.5 million purse and the mile-and-a-half distance would probably be conquered by a fresher horse over the vastness of the Belmont track, that a barrel-bellied horse like Tonalist would ruin yet another hope and make it 36 years without a Triple Crown. In the parking lot of the clubhouse, a guy in a suit lay stretched out in his car napping, with the doors open to let the breezes in. A female stable-hand in jeans and boots laughed at the ladies in spike heels trying to pick their way through the gravel. “Go on with your fancy selves,” she said as a Fancy Self clip-clopped just up ahead in precariously high black wedges, a canary yellow dress and a netted hat.
There was nothing fancy about Chrome’s co-owner Coburn, that man of the people in his straw hat. Late in the afternoon, looking cooked in a magenta shirt, the color of someone who has been drinking too long in the sun, Coburn got an impromptu ovation from the clubhouse crowd when he rose from his box seat and saluted them with the plastic cup that seemed ever-present in his hand. It was his last triumphant moment. A couple of hours later Coburn was feeling soreheaded over the fact that Tonalist, along with eight of the 11 competitors, had sat out the Derby and/or the Preakness, and his horse had to run against all of them. “This is a coward’s way out,” he said to NBC.
His own hardworking horse couldn’t quite fire as he turned for home or fight through all those fresh horses, tying for fourth. “I was just waiting to have the same kick like he always had before, and today he was a little bit flat down the lane,” jockey Victor Espinoza said. Assistant trainer Alan Sherman said, “He was wore out, I think.”
Nevertheless, California Chrome and his handlers proved a lot in their Triple Crown quest, and when Coburn gets over his disappointment, he’ll feel better about that. As the horse’s 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, said, “I mean, all horses get beat sooner or later.”
And when racing people get over their purse-lipped disapproval of Coburn’s outburst, they’ll see he has a good point. Coburn’s point-blankness will be called classless or crude by some, but the fact is, he’s right. California Chrome wasn’t running on equal terms with so many lightly raced competitors. “It’s all or nothing,” Coburn said. “It’s not fair to these horses that are running their guts out.” In the last 12 years, only a single horse has won the Belmont after competing in both the Derby and the Preakness. The final race of the series tends to be won by mystery horses with fresher legs that can plow through the deep loam of the huge tree studded park, and that was Tonalist.
California Chrome and Coburn were great for racing, right to the bitter end of the campaign, because they were the ultimate proof in favor of wildflowers. The horse was the product of a mare named Love the Chase, who cost just $8,000, and a credit-less sire named Lucky Pulpit, who stood stud for just $2,500. The Washington Post’s horse sage, Andrew Beyer, estimated before the race that California Chrome had the weakest pedigree of any Triple Crown event winner since 1986 – an assessment the horse’s owners seemed to agree with. “This horse could have been born to anybody,” Coburn said.
The great thing about wildflowers is that they put the bloodlines people in their place. You can’t breed out the random surprise. And if you try, you wind up with horses with the constitutions of Romanov princesses. California Chrome proved his place among the pricier thoroughbreds with a coat that shone like velour. Pedigree is just an attempt to take the gambling out of racing, to beat luck with a checkbook and a family tree. It doesn’t work. California Chrome’s owners didn’t need to win the Belmont to make that interesting point. He was a tired horse running against rested ones, and that was unfair and disappointing. But he was also a cheap horse running against expensive ones. And that was wonderful to watch.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org