The game needs a star, one that will come through where the others failed, and one that will stick around to build lasting rivalries to keep the fans coming back. That's a lot to ask of any horse, and California Chrome has only started the task, but when race day dawns Saturday at Pimlico, there is once again hope.
"People don't know that he's got enough lick that he can stay with any horse in the race," said 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman as he assessed Chrome's chances in the 10-horse Preakness field.
Sherman, who has ridden and worked with horses since he was a teenager, talks that way. Of course he does. He was cast for the part.
The colt came to Sherman from the one-horse racing stable of owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who named their operation Dumb Ass Partners because that's what they overheard someone saying after they bought Chrome's dam, Love The Chase, for $8,000. The mare was bred to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit for a $2,500 stud fee, and that humble union produced a handsome chestnut colt with white trim.
The owners put some suggested names into a hat and let a restaurant waitress pull out the winner: California Chrome. They took the colt to Sherman, and the rest is just padding for the plot. The trainer relocated his operation from Hollywood Park to Los Alamitos, the latter of which is a low-rent quarter-horse track near Long Beach best known as the indicator that one has stayed too long at the offtrack parlor.
Chrome broke his maiden last May, then stumbled around a bit before starting a win streak in December in the last stakes race ever held at Hollywood Park. Just for dramatic effect, naturally.
The streak continued with three consecutive wins at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby, then was extended to five straight with a 13/4-length win in Kentucky. It was the first time Sherman had been around a Derby winner since he was an 18-year-old exercise boy for Swaps in 1955. Seriously.
California Chrome stayed near the lead of a slow pace, then hit the gas at the top of the stretch and ran away with the race. It was a perfect setup for him, and, to be honest, there is the suspicion that the rest of the field wasn't all that good. Chrome's time of 2 minutes, 3.66 seconds was the slowest for a Derby winner over a fast track in 40 years.
In his favor, the competition doesn't get any better for the Preakness. Only two other horses in the field, Bayern and Ring Weekend, have crossed the line first in any graded stakes race, and a few of the entrants are absolute no-hopers. Still, this race will have what the Derby didn't have: speed. Chrome will be asked to keep up with what figures to be a quick early pace and then have enough left to get in front and hold off the closers. This doesn't concern Sherman.
"My horse is kind of push-button," he said.
So, this time for sure, right? Well, it has looked that way before, but there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Twelve colts have won both the Derby and the Preakness since, but not the Belmont Stakes. The closest was Real Quiet in 1998, which finished second by a nose to Victory Gallop at Belmont in a photo finish.
It's hard to do, and winning the three races in the span of 36 days seems almost impossible for the modern class of thoroughbred that is bred for speed and not durability. Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner in 1919. (Although no one knew it at the time. The term, borrowed from the English series of races built around the Epsom Derby, wasn't widely applied to the three U.S. races until the 1930s.) Barton won the Kentucky Derby on a Saturday, then won the Preakness four days later. Now, that was a horse.
This latest one is pretty good, though, and he has the look, and, heaven knows, he has the plot line. There hasn't been a pebble in his path so far, however, which makes you wonder. It also makes you hope. Two more sequels and the star will be a star forever.
Set up the stage in Baltimore, and let's see where the story goes from here.