In continuing with my Triple Crown memories, I am reprinting one
of my favorite columns written after California Chrome's Kentucky Derby, as I
feel it sums up the Cinderella story behind the horse as well as the dreams of
all those who own horses.
The 2014 Kentucky Derby was about
dreams and fate, an improbable hero from humble parentage, memories of Derbys
long ago, and a favorite owned and trained by underdogs. In short, it was about
life and its quirky twists and turns that lead us to places envisioned only in
dreams and guided only by fate.
Thoroughbred racing was once
dubbed The Sport of Kings. Well, there are no more kings and we are trying
desperately to convince the world we are still a sport. There are only mere
fragments left of past dynasties, as we witnessed in last year's Derby. For the
most part, the nobility that was once racing has morphed into a sport dominated
by "dumb ass partners." Working stiffs Steve Coburn and Perry Martin are the
first to admit it by branding themselves as such.
The California breeding industry
has for years been considered by the elitists as the other side of the tracks,
where obscurely bred horses grow up, race, and die in relative anonymity. A
colt by a $2,500 stallion, out of an $8,000 claiming mare, owned by a couple of
burly guys from Topaz Lake, Nevada, and Yuba City, Calif., who
actually get up at the crack of dawn and go to work, fits right into the
landscape that is California breeding.
So, what happens when these two
good ‘ol boys with their humble 3-year-old are offered $6 million for majority
interest in their colt? They say "No?" Are you kidding? Then they are offered
close to double that several weeks later and this time they say, "Hell, no?"
That escalates the pursuit of a
dream to a new "dumb ass" level.
But there are those rare
occasions in life when money becomes secondary, as insane as it may seem to
others and even to ourselves as we make decisions that defy all rationality. We
who love this sport and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it realize that
horses are embedded in our soul from childhood, whether through equine heroes
such as The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, and even TV
stars Trigger, Silver, and Mister Ed.
We as kids hop aboard our rocking
horse and continue to build up speed until we feel as if we are airborne. We no
longer are sitting atop a piece of wood, but atop Secretariat or Seattle Slew.
Imagine at that point if someone approached you and asked what you would pay to
have that rocking horse come alive and be transformed into Big Red or Slew. And
you owned him.
Coburn and Martin started off
with a cheap rocking horse and saw it come to life, just as Coburn had
envisioned in his dream, describing the unborn foal to his wife right down to
his color, white blaze, and four white ankles. When they went to see the
newborn foal, Coburn's wife walked over to the stall, took a look inside, and
told her husband to come take a look. "There's your dream," she said.
It hadn't been an easy birth for
his dam Love the Chase. The mare had lacerated the wall of her uterus and could
not be re-bred that year. She was bright and active and outwardly unaffected by
the ordeal, but she and her foal had to remain confined to the stall for an extended
period of time while the mare was treated and recovering. As a result, the foal
wasn't able to be out with the others to socialize and run around, so he became
more focused on people than he was on horses and developed an amiable
personality. He never lost that and was always a pleasure to be around and work
Martin and Coburn's golden steed,
who they named California Chrome, began to get faster and faster, and Coburn
and Martin found themselves back on that rocking horse, feeling that speed and
that rush of adrenaline. It built to such a frantic pace they could no longer
see dollar signs, only the Twin Spires beckoning in the distance, and even that
elusive Triple Crown trophy that has become tarnished by years of sitting in
storage. Coburn felt California Chrome was invincible, truly believing his
deceased sister was the colt's guardian angel, guiding him every step of his
With each race, their rocking
horse kept building up speed. Even those who have never had a rocking horse
surely have ridden a flashy, blazed face horse on a carousel, its eyes with
that wild look to them and mouth wide open. With all the horses to choose from,
when you hopped aboard yours, didn't you feel as if it were your horse, chosen
just for you?
Coburn must have felt that at
some point in his childhood, and he was able to relate to it now, as he talked
about how special it was to see that brass ring on the merry-go-round turn to
gold and Art Sherman reaching out and grabbing it.
He concluded by saying with the
utmost gratitude, "God bless you, Art, for doing what you've done with this
Sometimes, even dreams need a
little outside help, and Sherman was living his own dream, returning to
Churchill Downs nearly 60 years after accompanying the great Swaps by train to
capture the roses. Whether feeling that rush as an 18-year-old exercise rider
or as the oldest trainer at age 77 to win the Derby, you never lose that child
in you when it comes to horses. You always reach out for that brass ring,
because at the other end could be a Swaps or a California Chrome. And that is
why Sherman, after arriving in Kentucky, went to visit the grave of his beloved
Swaps located behind the Kentucky Derby Museum and said a little prayer. What
he prayed for was that California Chrome could become another Swaps. A few days
later on the first Saturday in May, Sherman found his Swaps.
And what is more important than
sharing dreams with those you love. Perry Martin stood by the rail following
the Kentucky Derby waiting for his 83-year-old mother, Catherine, and then
helped her into a wheel chair. He walked behind her as she was wheeled across
the track to the winner's circle, trying hard to fight back the tears that were
welling up. His brother had driven her to Kentucky from Michigan. He tried to
speak but nothing would come out. All he could do was shake his head and say
with a quavering voice, "I have to go after my mom."
Many frowned upon California
Chrome's humble lineage. But Coburn, especially, could see that it was not about
names and race records. The blood of the Thoroughbred is infused with speed and
stamina and courage, and a wild spirit not seen in any other breed. That blood
goes back a number of generations, and on rare occasions, as is the case with
California Chrome, it all flows into one special place, like tributaries into a
mighty river. A closer look actually shows the blood of classic champions in
America and Europe coursing through his veins.
A lot has been made of California
Chrome's slow time and closing fractions. Time is perhaps the most relative
aspect of racing, because it is based on so many variables, such as the
headwind in this year's Derby. Time also has a way of fading into some deep
corridor of our mind as a horse goes on to further accomplishments. Alysheba
and his crop were considered slow and inferior after a 2:03 2/5 clocking in the
Derby (only a fifth faster than California Chrome) and a final half
in :51 2/5 (same as California Chrome). That is now considered one of the
great 3-year-old crops of all time and you can learn more about Alysheba on his
plaque in the Hall of Fame. Also up on that wall is Triple Crown winner Seattle
Slew, who came home his last half in the Derby in :51 3/5. Spectacular Bid, who
holds the world record for 1 1/4 miles, ran his Derby in 2:02 4/5, with a final
half in :50. Canonero II ran his Derby in 2:03 1/5 and everyone was convinced
he was nothing more than a slow plodder. Two weeks later he ran the fastest
Preakness in history.
The time of one race is not a
true indicator of a horse's ability. A horse is often measured by what is
inside him. We have the ability to scan a horse's heart to get an idea how it
might assist performance in a physiological way and we can attempt to discover
qualities about a horse such as lung capacity. But when dealing with an animal
that has taken on mythical qualities over the centuries and has bonded with
humans in an almost spiritual manner, one can easily resist scientific
explanation and just believe that once in great while a horse like California
Chrome can come along from seemingly humble beginnings to become the ragamuffin
who would be king.
No one has placed any crowns on
California Chrome's head just yet, and it is still too early to know whether he
will be sitting atop the throne. But for now, he has entered a place where few
before him have ventured-into our imagination. The storybook is already being
written. No one knows what the upcoming chapters will bring, but even now it
has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Romantics and poets have a way of
creating their own endings and making people feel and envision the beauty they
are trying to portray with their words.
And is there any poetry more soothing to the soul than the image of a Thoroughbred in action, whether it be made of flesh and bone or a piece of wood? Coburn and Martin may look like two hulking cowboys who rolled the dice on a dream, but in reality they are just
like us, or at least who we used to be-kids on a rocking horse going faster and
faster and enjoying the ride of their lives.