Remarkable story of California Chrome a boon for romantics
Belmont Stakes victory would complete an unbelievable Triple Crown success and a place in American sporting history
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome with jockey Victor Espinoza up trains at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
Victory for California Chrome in next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will mean a Triple Crown, a spot in American sporting history, and, surest bet of all, a movie. If they can make money flogging sentiment from the 80-year-old memory of Sea Biscuit, California Chrome is the sort of box-office that keeps Hollywood in cocaine.
Already the script is so full of corn it could be fed to chickens: a product of a $2,500 sire and an $8,000 mare so undistinguished only a dumb-ass would buy her, California Chrome is owned by two ‘working Joes’ who race under the name “Dumb-Ass Partnership”.
Owning a thoroughbred is hardly a pursuit for anyone close to the breadline but since one of the ‘DAP’s’ still works in a factory making magnetic strips for credit-cards, we’re not talking billionaire petro-dollar Sheikh here.
Then there’s 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman who as a 15-year-old groom rode-the-rails with the legendary Swaps to land the 1955 Kentucky Derby and didn’t go back to ‘the Durby’ until California Chrome won it four weeks ago. Sherman trains on the wrong side of the California racing track and exudes an effortless charm, playing ball with a publicity train that for once can focus on something positive in a medication-blighted American horse game.
Sherman has even speculated that Joe Pesci might play him in the movie. Since Pesci is a racing nut, it isn’t completely fanciful too visualise him eye-balling a horse – “Do I amuse you?”
What would have been dismissed as fanciful if it wasn’t happening in front of our eyes is how a bargain-basement colt has captivated the attention of the racing world, adding the Preakness to the Derby, and is now raging favourite to become the first horse in 36 years to complete the Triple Crown. He’s even got a veteran jockey on his back whose career looked to be on the slide but is now catapulted back to fame.
It is just 11 years since Funny Cide arrived at the Belmont with the Crown in his sights and an ownership of some New York tough-guys who’d ridden the classic trail on a yellow school-bus. One of them even baulked at spending $1,000 for three nights in a Louisville hotel – “I didn’t spend that much on a 10-day honeymoon!”
It’s only five years since Mine That Bird travelled to the Derby from New Mexico for 17 hours in the back of a van and won the ‘Run for the Roses’ at 50-1. The movie about that came out in March.
The blue-collar contrast with another mile and a half classic this Saturday – a certain Derby at Epsom – is glaring. Describing anything as impossible is an automatic invitation to embarrassment but it requires a Kubrick-like leap of the imagination to picture such sentimental scenarios being played out in Europe’s most famous race.
Three hundred years of selective thoroughbred breeding has lowered the genetic pool to a fearsomely shallow and exclusive pool which only the wealthiest can dip into, the sort of wealth that even looks otherworldly in media rich-lists based on publicly accessible information and which are presumably still only a fraction of the real picture.
This Derby is dominated by John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud with bloodstock behemoths, such as Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin, the Aga Khan, Prince Khalid Abdullah and Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family snapping at their heels. It’s safe to presume none of them will travel to Epsom by bus or van, so fitting them into the role of plucky-underdog is a push.
Even in the supposedly more egalitarian world of jump racing, the spending power of a select handful of owners means emerging talent quickly gets snapped up. Moaning about that is hopelessly indulgent: last year the exciting young hurdler Our Conor was bought for a reported €1million and wound up taking a fatal fall at Cheltenham. Presumably the million isn’t all spent yet.
All of which doesn’t mean exclusivity at the top of the sporting tree is wrong. So much at the top of every professional game comes down to financial clout. No one pretends football has morphed into anything but the expensive accumulation of the best talent. Raging against that involves futilely raging forever. And prattling on about romance is mostly just exercise for the deluded.
However a certain amount of delusion does remain the grease that sport rolls along on. Whether or not California Chrome becomes the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown, or becomes the twelfth since Affirmed to fail at the final leg, is an ephemeral matter in comparison to the root-and-branch reform required for America’s medication culture.
California Chrome will run in the Belmont on furosemide, also known as lasix, a diuretic that has also been used as a masking agent. That his opposition will too can be presented in level-playing-field terms that still won’t legitimise it to non-American eyes. But even so, only those especially allergic to corn can be immune to this story’s charms.