LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every year, more or less, the Triple Crown talk begins about nine seconds after the Kentucky Derby ends. The Triple Crown in horse racing has been an annual obsession for a long, long time. But the Triple Crown talk will be louder this year, much louder.
Horse racing -- like golf and boxing -- hungers for a bright star at the center.
And Saturday, on a late Kentucky afternoon so perfect you could almost step back in time, an impossible dream of a horse named California Chrome took the lead into the stretch, pulled away, won the Derby and put horse racing at the heart of American sports again ... at least until the Preakness in two weeks.
The California Chrome story is so absurdly good that it triggers an odd emotion in sportswriters. We spend our days and nights and weekends trying to wring the last drop of delight or curiosity out of players who spew clichés and coaches who barely hide their contempt and games that barely have even a whiff of drama. We do this continually and then, every now and again, we get a quotable character or a truly heartwarming story or a thrilling game, and these feel like small miracles.
So, what is there to do with Chrome -- a horse with TOO MANY good stories? What do you do when you have a Kentucky Derby winner that somehow emerged from a $10,500 investment ($8,000 for the mother; a $2,500 breeding fee for the sire)?
What do you do with horse owners and breeders who named their partnership Dumb-Ass Partners because it was built around a mare that a groom said only a dumb ass would buy?
What do you do when the horse is trained by a kindly little 77-year-old man (now the oldest to ever win the Kentucky Derby, of course) who had only been to the Derby once, almost 60 years ago, when he was the guy responsible for cleaning up after a Derby winner called Swaps?
What do you write when everything around you -- absolutely everything-- is magical and impossible and, in the truest sense of the word, unbelievable?
“I’m sorry,” jockey Victor Espinoza is saying after he breaks down crying. He is not crying over winning his second Derby. He is crying thinking about the young cancer victims it will help ... Espinoza gives 10 percent of his earnings to City of Hope, a cancer treatment center in Los Angeles.
OK, hold on, jockey helping kids with cancer, let me write this down here ...
“If I shed a tear, just bear with me,” co-owner Steve Coburn is saying, “This colt was born on February 18, on my sister Brenda’s birthday. She died of cancer at age 36. It will be 36 years this year since there’s been a Triple Crown winner.”
No, wait, stop for a second ...
“Yeah, I went over there and said a little prayer,” the trainer, Art Sherman, is saying -- he is talking about visiting the grave of his old friend Swaps, the 1955 Derby winner. Swaps is buried here at Churchill Downs. “He was a super horse. Swaps. Six world records at one time. I said, ‘Hey, let me have half your talent, put it into Chrome. I’ll be the happiest guy in the world.'”
No. That’s it. Stop. Horse prayers? Numerology? Racing for sick children? It’s too good. It’s too much. Can they give some of these amazing and heartening stories to the New England Patriots? To Tiger Woods? To anyone in college sports? Horse racing fans talk all the time of the need for a superstar horse to capture the nation’s attention, but there is enough in California Chrome for TEN superstar horses.
“He’s the rock star,” Sherman is saying. “I’m just the manager.”
So, let’s go over it one more time. Coburn and his partner Perry Martin bought a losing mare named Love the Chase for eight grand. She may have loved the chase, but she did not ever actually catch anybody; the sellers were more than happy to dump her on Coburn and Martin for $8,000. Then they bred her with Lucky Pulpit, a sire few had much use for either.
Three weeks before California Chrome was born, Coburn had a dream ... and in his dream he saw a beautiful chestnut colt. He described the dream horse to his wife, Carolyn. One day after Chrome was born, they went to see him and he looked exactly like the description. “Look,” Carolyn said. ‘There’s your dream.”
So they gave him to Art Sherman, a former jockey from Brooklyn who moved out West to be around horses and has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse.
“He was always easy to train,” Sherman would say in his understated way.
“I knew he was special,” Coburn would say in his overstated way.
After a few early races, Sherman asked Espinoza to ride Chrome. The connection was immediate. First time out, Hollywood Park, Chrome put on this late charge that put chills in spines. Next time out, he won by five lengths. Next time out, he led wire-to-wire at the San Felipe … the same race that launched Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner.
And then he won at Santa Anita by five lengths and he was the Kentucky Derby favorite and this crazy story went national. All week, people didn’t believe it. Trainers and various horse people grumbled that California horses fade on the Kentucky Derby. They predicated the bubble would burst. In a way, you couldn’t blame them. Stories this good NEVER pan out.
Only there was California Chrome on Saturday, and Derby observers found themselves struggling to remember the last time a horse so thoroughly dominated the race. It wasn’t the margin of victory -- the 1 3/4 margin was hardly historic -- but it seemed obvious more or less from the first turn that Chrome was going to win. He worked to the lead without exerting any energy at all ... Espinoza found himself pulling Chrome back. There was a brief instant when Espinoza found himself boxed in, but the instant passed and, as Espinoza says, “I knew he would win at the three-eighths poll … it was just so smooth. Turning for home, I let it go. That was it.”
“I was riding those last 70 yards with Victor,” Sherman said.
“Do you think you’ve changed your life?” Sherman was asked Saturday.
“I’m just the same old Art Sherman, you know,” he said. “Except I won the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby is so unpredictable; that has been so much of its charm and wonder. It has to be unpredictable when you sent 20 or so horses out there for their first mile-and-a-quarter race in front of 160,000 people dressed in suits, hats and mint juleps. California Chrome made it look routine. You got the sense when it ended that if that ran this race 10 times, Chrome would win eight or nine of them.
And that’s what will send the Triple Crown talk volume to 11. Chrome looked like a super horse on Saturday. He looked entirely in control.
Of course, Coburn had something to say about it -- the guy can’t HELP but be quotable: “I said, ‘When this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I believe this horse will win the Triple Crown. ... I told people this colt will go down in history. When he wins the Triple Crown, he will be the first California-bred to ever win a Triple Crown. That’s where we’re going.”
When someone asked Sherman how he felt about his boss predicting the Triple Crown, he just smiled. “The man has a dream,” he said.
So here we are, two weeks from the Preakness. The last Triple Crown was in 1978; that was Affirmed. In the years since then there have been 12 horses go to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown and miss. Spectacular Bid couldn’t put together a spectacular bid. Sunday Silence was silent. Silver Charm lost, Real Quiet lost, War Emblem (with Espinoza on board) barely showed up, Smarty Jones couldn’t quite hold on, Big Brown couldn’t even finish.
Each time along the way there was an excited nation of sports fans thinking, “This time.” Each time there American sports fans cared about horse racing like it was a time gone by. California Chrome looked good enough Saturday to take American on another ride. Will it happen this time? It’s like Art Sherman said. The man has a dream.