This year’s Triple Crown chase is a parable about humble roots, hard work and beating the odds. At the age of 77, Art Sherman became the oldest trainer to win the May 3rd Kentucky Derby, the world’s most famous race. He didn’t do it the usual way, with a blue blood Kentucky-bred stallion. Instead, California Chrome came to Sherman from the one-horse racing stable of Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. The California friends named their operation Dumb Ass Partners because that’s what they overheard someone say after they purchased the eventual Derby winner’s dam, Love the Case, for $8,000. The owners then bred the mare to a stallion named Lucky Pulpit for a $2,500 stud fee and that humble union produced a handsome chestnut colt with white trim.
After putting suggested names into a hat, Coburn and Martin let a restaurant waitress pull out the winner: California Chrome. After they chose Sherman as the colt’s trainer, he relocated his operation from Hollywood Park to Los Alamitos, a low-rent quarter-horse track near Long Beach.
In a sport known for upper class breeding, powerhouse racing stables and multi-millionaire trainers and owners, the team behind this year’s Triple Crown contender is proud of its working class roots and readily proclaims California Chrome “a horse for the people.” Martin tells how his father, Charlie Martin, a hard-working blue collar guy from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, taught him and his brother to go out there and earn it if you wanted something. After college, Perry Martin went to California and started working at a laboratory. Using his father’s formula, he kept working long hours and now he owns the lab, which tests polymers, metals and other materials. Coburn runs a small company that makes magnetic strips for things like credit cards and hotel keys.
Trainer Sherman’s stunning victory at Churchill Downs came after 60 years of hard work in the Sport of Kings, starting as a jockey. Now the team, including jockey Victor Espinoza, have their sights set on the Preakness on May 17th in Baltimore, Maryland. California Chrome is the 3-2 favorite. The odds are in the California horse’s favor to win again – but if he does, the ultimate challenge still comes at the Belmont Stakes, which has eluded Triple Crown seekers since Affirmed won in 1978. If California Chrome wins the Preakness on Saturday, there will be a lot of hard-working dreamers out there cheering him on to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton won all three races in 1919. The Belmont Stakes will take place on June 7th in New York. For more information on this improbable team, read Detroit Free Press columnist Jeff Seidel’s touching portrait at http://www.freep.com/article/20140515/COL38/305150035/california-chrome-triple-crown-horse-racing-upper-peninsula
I have a great respect for anyone who breaks historic barriers in the worlds of business or sports — and right now my heroine is jockey Rosie Napravnik. This month she became the first female Triple Crown jockey in horse racing, a truly amazing feat.
I ‘ve been following Rosie lately because I have a tradition of watching the Triple Crown races –the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont — that goes back to the days of Secretariat, the wonder horse who set the standard and set records for winning all three with spellbinding ease and panache in 1973. I didn’t get to see that series live, but witnessed two other astounding Triple Crown winners closing the deal in style at Belmont just a few years later. They were Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1977 and 1978. Since then, there has been a long drought and I’ve been focused on spotting the next winning Triple Crown combination of horse, trainer, owner and jockey. This year it seemed to be Orb, who won the Kentucky Derby handily for legendary trainer Shug McGaughey, owner Stuart S. Janney III and jockey Joel Rosario. But by the time the Triple Crown ended with Orb defeated in both the Preakness and Belmont, my attention had shifted to another phenomena – a gutsy female jockey getting rave reviews from fans and sportswriters for setting a new kind of record.
Rosie Napravnik did not win any of the Triple Crown races this year, but she came in 5th, 3rd and 6th on two different mounts – her finish in the Belmont on the filly Unlimited Budget showed a raw determination to break down the barrier that said female jockeys couldn’t cut it in three classic races in a row this tough. If you’d like to read more about what makes Rosie so special, follow this link to a great article that catches her special spirit and bravery: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1665465-meet-rosie-napravnik-horse-racings-first-female-triple-crown-jockey. And if Rosie is riding in next year’s Triple Crown series, you should consider paying close attention!
The Preakness is the second leg of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown and trainer Kathy Ritvo is on a mission this Saturday to show that her third place finish in the Kentucky Derby with Mucho Macho Man was no fluke. Only one other female trainer, Shelley Riley did better in the Derby, with a second place finish in 1992 with Casual Lies. As Ritvo heads for Pimlico Racetrack in Maryland, she faces even greater odds. There has never been a female trainer with a horse entered in the Preakness – and probably no male trainer with Ritvo’s history: she had a heart transplant in November 2008.
In interviews, Ritvo is enthusiastic and upbeat. She told USA Today that she doesn’t try to be a role model for female trainers, but added she’d be flattered if she is.
“If I am, that would be great,” she told reporter Jesse Halladay, “but they just need to hang in there like me.” She added that there’s a lot of good days and a lot of bad days. “You hold on to the good days and forget the bad days.”
Ritvo shared the spotlight in making Kentucky Derby history for women with jockey Rosie Napravnik, who had a ninth place finish with longshot Pants on Fire to make her the highest finishing jockey of her gender. Napravnik credits the first and second generations of women jockeys who opened the doors for her— including 11th place finishers Patti Cooksey in 1984 and Julie Krone in 1995.
As Ritvo now prepares for the Preakness and another shot at first place, she might be inspired to ignore the naysayers by noting how trainer Steve Asmussen conditioned Rachel Alexandra for an historic upset in 2009: she was only the fifth filly to win the Preakness and the first horse of either gender to win from the farthest outside position – the 13th post. Rachel Alexandra went on to become horse of the year and is now retired in glory.
In fact, the Triple Crown always remains a place where entrepreneurs of either sex can be reminded that records – and traditions – are meant to be broken. For Ritvo, the Preakness is a chance to claim another milestone in history for women. She’s still hanging in there.
You know something’s afoot in thoroughbred horse racing when the two top contenders for Horse of the Year honors are fillies – and one of them has beaten the top colts in the land, including this year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners, Mine that Bird and Summer Bird. I wrote this spring about the thrill of seeing a filly in the Triple Crown, and how it evoked memories of the great Ruffian. But this time, there is no tragedy, only history in the making!
Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is getting rock star treatment at Saratoga this summer as her owners debate which Stakes Race she should be entered in next. Early in August she cruised to her eighth straight win in the Haskell Monmouth Park in New Jersey, just a few ticks off the track record.
The other super filly is in California. Zenyatta, five years old, has never tasted defeat in eleven starts, including winning last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, but she has only run against fillies. Zenyatta was a late bloomer, who did not begin racing until she was a three year old and last year was a strong contender for Horse of the Year. She was awarded the Eclipse Award as American Champion Older Female Horse for 2008.
However the rap is that Rachel’s owner Jess Jackson says he won’t run on the “plastic” tracks out west where California’s racing surfaces are synthetic and Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss seems in no hurry to head east. I wrote about horseracing and spent a year working for a few trainers at the New Jersey tracks in the late 70s, when it truly was a male dominated sport. I was thrilled to get to know one of the few gutsy women trainers then and watch that era’s super filly, Ruffian. It was the same time that women were just beginning to challenge the status quo in the workplace as well as in sports.
I’m excited to see we’re moving to a new level this year. Although, as one sports writer put it, it seems that not even the sport of kings can get a pair of queens into the same race! Stay tuned, the story’s not over yet.
I remember the day Ruffian died. She was a huge black filly with unbelievable spirit and beauty. It was July 6, 1975 and she was locked in a duel with the Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, a small chestnut, in a highly publicized match race at Belmont Park. Then as dark clouds gathered, Ruffian stumbled and went down. The roaring fans in the grand stand gasped collectively. My friends and I were in shock and then the tears came. The gallant filly had broken her leg. She was later euthanized. It was as though the heavens weeped as a thunder shower moved in that day.
I missed last year’s tragedy where Eight Belles broke down after running second in the Kentucky Derby and was put down, but I think I would have cried again, even though two strong fillies have won the Derby since 1980 (and Regret won in 1915). The truth is that fillies race against colts all the time in Europe, but the classics are generally run on the turf there as opposed to on the dirt in America. I’m convinced that is what makes the competition more prone to injury.
This year a brave filly named Rachel Alexandra is flashing the charisma and spirit of Ruffian and her owners decided to test her in the Preakness against another small brown Derby winner, this one a longshot 50-1 gelding called Mine that Bird, a Canadian champ trained by a maverick cowboy out of New Mexico who didn’t get any respect at Churchill Downs until he blew the competition away.
I balked at the idea of watching two gutsy horses of opposite sexes matched up again in a classic race, especially when one of them is an underdog you want to love! It seemed unfair, I thought, to mess with a storybook ending for Mine that Bird when I originally read that the race was shaping up and that Jockey Calvin Borel was abandoning his mount on Mind That Bird to ride the filly. But I wasn’t surprised that a lot of feminist sites loved the idea of the match!
Still, when Rachel Alexandra won that Saturday in May, I took a deep breath then gave thanks for all the ways the world has changed since Ruffian and for a cast that Hollywood could never dream of! And stay tuned this racing season for more episodes with Rachel Alexandra, most recently racing and winning again with fillies in the Mother Goose at Belmont, and two “birds” still testing themselves, now that Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes over his “brother” Mine that Bird (both were sired by Birdstone). Could it be a better reality series?