Last year I cheered on the exciting, but ultimately unsuccessful Triple Crown quest of an improbable thoroughbred champion named California Chrome*– dubbed the “people’s horse” by his Michigan owners in tribute to their working class roots and the horse’s modest breeding tag. On the first Saturday of June this year, I celebrated my birthday with friends by watching a 3 year old, frisky Bay colt named American Pharoah** finally end the 37 year drought in one of sport’s most elite championships by dramatically winning the Belmont. You have to go back to 1978 for the last Triple Crown triumph, when Affirmed beat his archrival Alydar three times to become only the 11th superstar since 1919 in the club that also added Seattle Slew in ’77 and Secretariat in ’73. Secretariat’s win followed Citation in 1948, a 27 year drought.
Yes, we got spoiled in the ‘70s. That trio of superstars made those of us lucky enough to see one or more of them win believe we would keep seeing more coronations in the “80s. I was new to horseracing and handicapping in those years and lucky enough to be hanging out with college friends Alan and Peggy Fisk at the New York tracks. We had all started our journalism careers in Detroit, but it wasn’t until we met up again in New York that they convinced me to occasionally join them on summer weekends handicapping America’s best thoroughbreds .
As the years passed without a winner, we were reminded that the Triple Crown combines a grueling pace – three races in five weeks – with a final painful distance of one-and-a-half miles as the final test. The Triple Crown begins with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in early May, followed in a few weeks by the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico Racetrack, capped by the Belmont in early June in New York. The team behind American Pharoah needed to get seasoned by first taking a few talented racehorses part of the way. In fact, 13 horses since 1978 have won two races before failing to win the Belmont. Over the past 36 years, Bob Baffert –the Hall of Fame trainer of American Pharoah– has had five thoroughbreds win two of the three major races, most recently War Emblem in 2002. For American Pharoah’s Jockey , Victor Espinoza, it was his third Triple Crown attempt – the first was on Baffert’s War Emblem and last year he rode California Chrome to a heartbreaking third place finish in the Belmont for trainer Art Sherman.
American Pharoah’s owner, Egyptian-American businessman Ahmed Zayat, was confident that his horse had the right bloodlines to go the distance – his only flaw was a short “tail” bitten in an encounter with another horse. This year, the Belmont yielded a spectacular win for Zayat’s horse, by 5-1/2 lengths, in a time only beaten by Secretariat. Yes, for some members of the American Pharoah team, the victory came after a few very painful failures. Ultimately that’s a good lesson for all of us on staying the course –and don’t forget American Pharoah’s own “painful” encounter on the road to victory.
* Despite losing the Belmont, California Chrome went on last year to win more stakes races and was crowned Horse of the Year for 2014.
**The misspelling of the word pharaoh occurred during a contest and was not caught until after it was officially submitted to the Jockey Club.
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