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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

June 6, 2014 at 6:00 AM

California Chrome: Why one skeptic has turned into a fan

California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado in the saddle, gallops in the rain at Belmont Park race track in Elmont, N.Y., Thursday. Garry Jones, The Associated Press

California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado in the saddle, gallops in the rain Thursday at Belmont Park race track in Elmont, N.Y.
Garry Jones, The Associated Press



One of the first rules for a sportswriter is that there is no cheering in the press box.

So I guess it’s a good thing I won’t be covering the Belmont on Saturday. Because I am going to be cheering as loud as I can for California Chrome to do what hasn’t been done since 1978, when Affirmed won horse racing’s Triple Crown.

It is the longest stretch in history without a Triple Crown winner, and the sport desperately needs one.

The average fan pays attention to the Kentucky Derby, and then once the Derby winner loses in the Preakness or Belmont, tunes out until the next year’s Derby. A Triple Crown winner would change that. Casual sports fans would pay attention every time the horse ran.

But my cheering goes far beyond that. This is the right horse, with the right owners, trainer and jockey.

The richest men in the world pay millions for horses with the best bloodlines to be in the position California Chrome is in. These rich men send their regally bred horses to the biggest trainers, who have multitudes of assistants in their nationwide operations, and their horses seem to run less and less often, the prevailing wisdom being that more spacing between races is better.

If California Chrome wins Saturday, it will be a victory for the everyman, or should we say everyhorse. California Chrome began his career at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. It just as well could have been Emerald Downs.

Hollywood would never accept a script like this. It would be too improbable to believe.

Two regular working guys, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, spent $8,000 to purchase lightly regarded mare Love That Chase at a Maryland sale. The story goes that they saw something special in that horse, while a groom at the mare’s barn said anyone who would actually pay $8,000 for that horse was a dumb ass. Thus, Coburn and Martin named their partnership “Dumbass Partners.” DAP for short.

They bred their new mare to 10-year-old California stallion Lucky Pulpit, who had been underwhelming in his second career. Their cost to breed to Lucky Pulpit: $2,000, a tiny fraction of the cost to breed to top stallions.

They sent their only race horse to 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman, who in decades of racing has seemed to never make an enemy or do anything remotely unethical. He races California Chrome early and often, then starts winning, and winning.

The owners were offered $6 million for 51 percent ownership of the horse before the Santa Anita Derby in April. That’s a lot of money for two guys who still have regular jobs at ages 61 and 58, but this journey to them is priceless and they were determined to see it through to the end.

The rest is history. Sherman saddled a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time, 59 years after he was the exercise rider at Churchill Downs for Kentucky Derby-winning Swaps.

California Chrome won the Derby with ease in his 11th career race, despite many thinking his workload might catch up to him. He won two weeks later in the Preakness, showing great heart and another gear while turning back Ride On Curlin.

Assistant trainer Alan Sherman leads Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado riding, to the track in preparation for the Belmont Stakes.  Rob Carr / Getty Images

Assistant trainer Alan Sherman leads Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, with exercise rider Willie Delgado up, to the track in preparation for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
Rob Carr / Getty Images

The jockey, Victor Espinoza, is undefeated in the six races he has ridden California Chrome. Espinoza’s reputation in the industry is as impeccable as Sherman’s. Espinoza donates 10 percent of his winnings to City of Hope, a cancer research hospital in Los Angeles, and he has told reporters that the children he has met there motivate him to keep riding.

And I think his horse is going to win Saturday. I wasn’t convinced he was a Triple Crown contender before the Kentucky Derby, despite four straight impressive wins. I still wasn’t sold after the Derby victory. But after the Preakness, I am convinced. This horse is worthy to be included in the ranks of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and the other eight Triple Crown winners.

I became a convert after re-watching the final quarter-mile of the Preakness.

Watching it live, I thought Ride On Curlin was going to run past California Chrome in the final eighth of a mile.

But seeing it again, once Ride On Curlin got about a length and a half from California Chrome, he never got closer. They could have gone another 5/16ths of a mile, or a mile and half total, and California Chrome wasn’t going to be caught. That’s how far California Chrome has to run in the grueling Belmont Stakes. But my brain and my heart are finally together: California Chrome will do it.

That said, I was pretty certain two other horses in the past decade would complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont, including Big Brown in 2008 and Smarty Jones in 2004.

This time, though, it seems so right. In Big Brown’s case, his trainer was Rick Dutrow, who has been punished repeatedly for training violations.

Although I rooted for Big Brown to pull off the feat, it felt like rooting for Barry Bonds to break Hank Aaron’s home-run record.

There is no cognitive dissonance this time.

Go, California Chrome!

Scott Hanson is a sports desk editor who also covers horse racing and golf for The Seattle Times.

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