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HRN Original Blog:
Past the Grandstand

California Chrome: An Ambassador for California

 

Only four California-breds have won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Only five California-breds have won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Only two California-breds have won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). No California-bred has ever won the Triple Crown.


But on Saturday, California Chrome looks to not only put this drought to an end, but the drought so many racing fans have yearned to see end: the 36 years that have passed without a Triple Crown winner. Despite twelve attempts since, a horse has not swept the prestigious series since Affirmed accomplished the coveted feat in 1978. As made evident by the many decades that have passed since a horse has won the Triple Crown, it is an achievement that only a truly great equine athlete can complete. The hopes of America will travel with California Chrome to the Belmont Stakes, but the support of one state in particular will be abounding as the blaze-faced chestnut faces the biggest test of his life in New York.


California-breds typically do not receive the same amount of respect as horses bred in the horse capital of the world, Kentucky. They are labeled with words like “cheap” and “inferior” and are frequently approached with disrespect when competing in big races on a national stage.


“For the most part, horses bred in this state – for whatever reason – seem to get slighted when they are talked about nationally,” Harris Auerbach, Vice Chair of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said. “The statistics are, when we run in the grade one, grade two, and grade three races, we do just as well as the Kentucky-breds. We just don’t have as many.”


Perhaps the lack of respect for California-breds has made California Chrome’s quest for history all the more special for the Golden State. After four consecutive victories, which he had won by a combined winning margin of 24 ¼ lengths, California Chrome confirmed his dominance with wins in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. While the large crowds at Churchill Downs and Pimlico eagerly cheered on the blaze-faced chestnut, it was the crowds at Santa Anita Park on the days of the Derby and Preakness that exuded the most pride.


“Electrifying is probably the best word to use (to describe the crowds),” Mary Ellet, a pony rider at Santa Anita, said. “For both races, when Chrome was announced in the post parade, the crowd was cheering and clapping; it was pretty amazing to see. And then when he turned for home in both races, the crowd absolutely exploded. People were screaming and jumping up and down and crying.”


It is not only California Chrome’s role as an ambassador for California-breds that has the state of California rooting for him. Like the rest of America, California fans have been charmed by California Chrome’s heartwarming story and likeable connections.


“I was watching the Kentucky Derby with a lot of California trainers – Carla Gaines, Barry Abrams, Sean McCarthy, and Tim Yakteen – and when he won, it was like all of us had won the Derby,” Auerbach said. “Because Art has a medium-sized barn where you don’t get great horses all the time. It’s not like Baffert or Sadler. So it was really special.”


This strong support for Chrome has been evident in California not only on these race days, but throughout the colt’s entire Triple Crown campaign. From the casual race fan to the hardened racetrack worker, California Chrome has inspired his home state.


“Everyone is rooting for him: trainers, exercise riders, people that have nothing to do with horses. . .” Ellet said. “Everyone wants to see him succeed. The people at Los Alamitos are probably the proudest of all. I don't know specific numbers, but I know that a lot of people have showed up to Santa Anita to cheer him on in the Derby and the Preakness so he's already helping racing by bringing more people into the sport. He's such an amazing horse that people can't help but to love him and his connections even if they've never paid attention to horse racing until now.”


Ellet herself has been drawn to California Chrome. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, she made a handful of trips to Los Alamitos Racecourse to see California Chrome before he left California to pursue the Triple Crown. At the time, a Derby win was just a hopeful thought. Now, a historic Triple Crown triumph is possible.


“I'm already very proud of the industry that I'm a part of, but if he won, that pride would only increase,” Ellet said. “I would be honored to say that I know the horse, the jockey, and the trainer that broke the Triple Crown drought. Not to mention those early mornings that I went to Los Alamitos before going to my office job just to see him gallop would be even more cherished.”


As California Chrome has compiled his winning streak, his breathtaking victories have earned not only respect for himself, but for the state he hails from as well. Auerbach’s family owns one of the all-time greatest California sires in Unusual Heat, one of the all-time greatest California sires who stands at Harris Farms – the same farm at which California Chrome’s sire, Lucky Pulpit stands, as well as the same farm where California Chrome was conceived and born. Already Auerbach has noticed the effect California Chrome has already had on the California Thoroughbred industry and is hopeful of the added influences a historic Triple Crown win on California Chrome’s part would provide.


“We’ve already seen a spike in the number of mares bred in the last couple months,” Auerbach said. “The numbers should be up this year. It’s noticeable. (If California Chrome were to win the Triple Crown), it would be a source of pride. It would be something that we could sell going forward for people not only to breed here, but to race here.”


California native Zoe Metz, who works as a photographer for Eclipse Sportswire, is a longtime California Chrome supporter. She has spent her senior year of high school following California Chrome, including attending the Derby and Preakness, and on Saturday, will miss her graduation to be present for his run at history in the Belmont. She, too, has been captivated by the talented horse and his humble connections.


“I had the chance to get close to Team Sherman over the course of Preakness week and they are honestly the best people – every single one of them,” Metz said. “And I couldn't find a more deserving group to win it, including Victor (Espinoza, California Chrome’s jockey). They all deserve it.”


Time and time again, the racing world has watched as a special horse – a horse that everyone believed was “The One” – has failed to sweep the Triple Crown. On Saturday, fans will hope that California Chrome does not await this same fate. A Belmont victory by California Chrome will own different meanings for every racing fan and professional, but would provide pure delight for all. For the California Thoroughbred industry, it would take on an even higher level of meaning.


“If California Chrome were to win it, knowing the stallion owners, having the relationships at the farm, it would mean the world to us,” Auerbach said. “To me personally, it would be validation of what we do in California. It would mean an awful lot.”

 

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About Mary Cage

 

Mary Cage, an 18-year-old avid fan of horse racing, has been around horses all her life, having owned, shown, and judged them for as long as she can remember. She began writing her own horse racing blog, Past the Grandstand, in August 2011 and has since been published with the BloodHorse's website, the American Quarter Horse Association's magazine "America's Horse", and Southern Racehorse Magazine. Blogging about the sport of horse racing combines her love for horse racing and writing. In her personal horse experience, she has won several horse judging contests at major stock shows and, in the show ring, is a Texas 4-H State Champion and Appaloosa Youth World Championship Show Top Ten finalist. 

 

Mary has always aspired to have a career with horses and since her love for horse racing began, she has dreamed of pursuing a career in the Thoroughbred racing industry, possibly as a writer. With this blog, she hopes to show readers horse racing through the eyes of a young fan as she writes about assorted horse racing topics.