Heartbreak Hotel: Again, Triple Crown hard to grab

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As much as I try to summon excitement about California Chrome being one race away from a Triple Crown, I fear a letdown.  Like those we’ve had the last 12 times a horse was in his position.

It defies the laws of probability that since Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978, which followed a year after Seattle Slew’s, twelve horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to stumble – sometimes literally and tragically – in Elmont, N.Y.

The most horrific – and also the most touching — sight of my newspaper career was Charismatic breaking down about eighty feet from the press box, in the 1999 Belmont Stakes.  He was a shiny chestnut like Chrome (they had a common ancestor, Secretariat), but larger.  He was a 2-1 favorite to win the Belmont, the final jewel for his Crown.

Charismatic led in the stretch but broke stride so abruptly that jockey Chris Antley knew a leg had snapped.  He jumped off the horse and held his left front leg, fractured in two places, until a veterinarian arrived.  By calming this highly spirited colt, Antley saved his life, though he would never race again.

That sort of injury is all too common, along with injuries  exacerbated by injections from unscrupulous vets and trainers, bringing a flurry of recent investigations by media and government.  What a shame if the dark underside of the sport keeps us from basking in the light of California Chrome.

Almost as heartbreaking as Charismatic’s demise was that of Smarty Jones in the ’04 Belmont.  Undersized like California Chrome, Smarty won his first eight races, including  the Preakness by 11 ½ lengths.  He was a 2-5 favorite to win the Belmont in front of 22 million televiewers.  But he was not at his best for the “Test of Champions.”  He was kidney-sweating, and though he led for most of the race, was caught in the final strides, losing by a length to 36-1 longshot Birdstone.

The next superhorse to be humbled by Belmont was Big Brown in ’08.  He won both the Derby and the Preakness by more than four lengths.  But he cracked his hoof during the Belmont Stakes and was eased up – the only loss in his eight-race career.

As impressive as California Chrome has been (6 wins in a row, 8-for-12 lifetime), he is not a more imposing Triple Crown contender than Smarty Jones or Big Brown.

Or Funny Cide, who like Chrome had the common touch:  novice amateur owners and modest breeding.  The New York-bred gelding won the 2003 Preakness by 9 lengths, but Empire Maker stopped his Triple Crown bid on his home field, at Belmont.

Though California Chrome won the Preakness by a comfortable 1 ½ lengths, the place horse was gaining ground and might have caught up if the race had been 5/16 of a mile longer, like the Belmont.

Ride on Curlin, the Preakness runner-up with Joel Rosario riding, is the sort of grinder that tends to win the Belmont.  He’s bred to endure in the biggest events, his sire Curlin having won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup.

Two other powerful stretch runners, Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong, finished second and fourth in the Derby, burdened by far outside posts and sluggish pace.  They bypassed the Preakness to rest and train for the Belmont.

Which leads to another issue.  Could California Chrome be tired?  He’s raced 12 times – the most of any horse in the Belmont.  His owners couldn’t afford to save him for Triple Crown season; they needed purses to pay for hay.  Given that he’s not a large horse, you have to wonder what he has left.   

Jockey Victor Espinoza didn’t sound all that confident when he said after the Preakness, “He’ll get his three weeks of rest and hopefully he has enough energy for the mile and a half.”

Should he prevail on the June 7 race, California Chrome would be a worthy Triple Crown winner.  He’s remarkably agile and has perfect rapport with Espinoza, who’s won all six times he’s ridden him.  This colt was barely sweating after the Derby and Preakness.  His gait is so smooth – four white stockings emphasizing the rhythm and coordination — Espinoza could drink a cup of coffee while riding him.

California Chrome has been training splendidly at Belmont, apparently happy with the deep sandy track and untroubled by the throng of media visiting his barn.

“He’s a rock star,” says his trainer, Art Sherman.  “He likes to pose for pictures.”  This intelligent, peaceful, lovable colt has attracted a passionate following, who call themselves “Chromies.”   He is the perfect Cinderella.

When Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, two middle-class, middle-aged men, decided to take on the hobby of horse-breeding, they could not afford broodstock that were stakes winners at classic distances.  They would have to settle for descendants of some.

Martin believed he could match pedigrees in a low-cost way to foal a router.  From studying horse genealogy he saw how selective inbreeding could strengthen a gene pool, magnifying the chance of producing a champion.  It’s like an NBA team finding a few extra balls for the lottery.

Martin and Coburn for $8,000 bought a mare, Love the Chase, who won only one race, a maiden claimer.  But she was inbred to three of the legends of the sport:  Buckpasser, Northern Dancer and Swaps (who was fed and exercised by the teen-aged Sherman, now the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome).

The Dumb-Ass Partners, as Coburn and Perry ironically called themselves (with a donkey on the jockey’s silks), paid a relatively paltry $2,000 stud fee for the California sprinter Lucky Pulpit.  What attracted Perry were his ancestors generations back: Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat.  To one who knows breeding the way Martin does, it was no shock that Lucky Pulpit could sire a Kentucky Derby winner.

Still, the 146th Belmont with its extra two furlongs may be asking too much.  Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong is working well at Belmont, where he broke his maiden.  He’s ready to fire for one of New York’s sharpest trainers, James Jerkens (25% wins) and would be a nice value bet at 8-1.

Also dangerous is Tonalist, who fell off the Derby Trail with a lung infection but returned to health in the May 10 Peter Pan Stakes (GII).  He won by four lengths in the Belmont slop for Rosario, who’s choosing him over Ride on Curlin, who like California Chrome could be in need of rest, this being his seventh race in five months.  He had to run often to collect enough points to qualify for the Derby.

In this strong field, Chrome deserves to be favored, perhaps 7-5.  But not 4-5 as he’s likely to be.  Chances are, America will be heartbroke again.


Click here for link to Gary West’s article at ESPN.com: “Numbers in Chrome’s favor.”

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