Wednesday 23 October 2019

California dreaming of elusive crowning glory

American racing fans are in thrall to tale of a modern Seabiscuit, writes Ian McClean

California Chrome - 'a remarkable athlete... he's doing it with ease.' Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
California Chrome - 'a remarkable athlete... he's doing it with ease.' Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Ian McClean

California Chrome arrived in New York on Tuesday to begin preparations for his bid to become the US's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 36 years ago.

As he completed his one-and-three-quarter-mile exercise at Belmont Park, a cat-sized possum strayed onto the track. Still over two weeks away from the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the possum nonetheless made national news. Dubbed the 'dumb-ass possum' by the press, it has even acquired its own unique Twitter account (@DA Possum).

No matter that, according to assistant trainer Alan Sherman, California Chrome squares up to more menacing coyotes on a daily basis at his home track in Los Alamitos, California, it is the context that brings meaning.

And the compelling context for being so newsworthy on a national (and indeed international) basis is twofold. It plays to the tune of the American Dream in that the Triple Crown of Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont is simultaneously as elusive as it is emblematic of the pinnacle of sporting achievement.

In addition, the Californian Chrome story is a refrain of the ultimate rags-to-riches tale and reminiscent of that benchmark of all racing tales, Seabiscuit.

California Chrome is a freak of breeding. By a $2,000 sire out of an $8,000 mare, the sire Lucky Pulpit only won at five-and-a-half furlongs while the dam Love The Chase only ever won a mile claimer. The offspring colt's name derived from the four white feet and a giant white blaze on his chestnut face, born on a rare rainy afternoon in California's drought-ravaged San Joaquin Valley, a place better known for growing almonds and olives than champion thoroughbreds. The foal shone, apparently.

The two owners sent their first horse to a septuagenarian trainer who had once slept on hay bales in a railway car next to Swaps when that colt made the trip from Los Angeles to Louisville before his victory in the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Not for nearly 60 years did Art Sherman (now 77) have any cause to go back to the Derby, until this year with California Chrome.

The first offer for the colt came just before the Santa Anita Derby. The $6m bid was refused. Directly after Chrome won the race, the same offer of $6m was made for a 51 per cent share. At the same time the owners were offered $2.1m for the dam Love The Chase. They refused all inducements and have continued to decline the spiralling numbers as their unlikely hero now faces history square in the eye at Belmont Park on June 7. Co-owner Steve Coburn's rationale is lyrical. "What kind of price-tag can you put on a dream?"

However, in our highly acquisitive world, marketing is never too far away no matter how pure the dream. For starters, @CalChrome has 11,000 followers on Twitter (not to mention the number of likes on Facebook) and the 'Chromies' are recruiting rapidly. Moreover, according to Forbes magazine, an application has already been received at the US Patents office on behalf of California Chrome to protect the trademark phrase for use on athletic apparel and associated merchandise. All a far cry from the days of Affirmed 36 years ago.

And so the fanfare surrounding the pursuit of the elusive Triple Crown ramps up for yet another year. Victory in the first two legs of the crown is not so unusual.

In fact, the feat has been accomplished in nine of the last 18 years. The sticking point is always the third leg. The primary reason is that the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness are predominately about speed. The Belmont is about stamina. Run over a mile and a half, it is two furlongs longer than either of the other races.

Neither California Chrome nor any of his opponents on June 7 have ever raced over a distance that represents a complete unknown to the entire field.

The equine extra-terrestrial Cal Chrome has defied the odds thus far, however he doesn't have

a prayer on pedigree of staying a mile and a half. Furthermore, his race-style does nothing to suggest that a greater test of stamina will aid the cause.

In fact, if anything it has looked onerously like the petrol gauge was running to empty by the end of both Kentucky Derby and Preakness, with clock-watchers pointing to a weak finishing time.

Nonetheless, no less a trainer than Bob Baffert, who has failed to best this season's headline-maker with three different colts, is more optimistic. Indeed, he should know a thing or two about the situation having trained three horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to falter at the Belmont.

"I definitely think he's super, the real deal," the legendary handler remarked. "He's just a remarkable athlete . . . He's doing it with ease. None of his races have taxed him."

Referring to his own experience, Baffert explained "with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, they were really taxing races . . . But this horse, with this group, he rebreaks on them and just takes off again."

There is even a Limerick war outbreak for the occasion. Here's one:

There once was a horse called Cal Chrome

He won races away and at home

But he came to New York

And he stopped to a walk

That's the thing with 12 furlongs on loam

Just don't expect a re-tweet from the Chromies.

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