Two self-described Dumbasses, an aging trainer nearing octogenarianism and $10,000. That sounds more like a lost script to The Hangover 4 than the combination leading the charge toward breaking a 36-year Triple Crown drought.
Yet...here we are.
California Chrome's torrid race to the forefront of horse-racing culture continued Saturday, as the three-year-old colt dashed to the front and held off a charging Ride on Curlin to win the 2014 Preakness Stakes.
The win in many ways mirrored California Chrome's Kentucky Derby triumph. Strong out of the gate, jockey Victor Espinoza was satisfied hanging near the front of the pack early but never pushing his horse to the lead. The same way Uncle Sigh and Chitu dashed out early ahead a third-place California Chrome at Churchill Downs, Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia did the same Saturday.
And the result was exactly the same.
Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia faded, Espinoza shot California Chrome out of a cannon and one of the biggest favorites in horse racing history crossed the finish line first. At 3-5 odds, per Vegas Insider, California Chrome was for much of the week the only single-digit contender.
"It is an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome," Espinoza told NBC Sports after the race, per Ray Sanchez of CNN. "It was just a crazy race ... I got more tired mentally than physically riding him. But it worked out well, and he's just an amazing horse."
California Chrome is the 34th horse in history to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Only 11 have gone on to win the third. The last to do so was Affirmed in 1978. To put that in perspective, that's the same year the movie Grease was released in theatres. (Yes, you're old.)
"I knew we had to run harder this race," Art Sherman told NBC, per Sanchez. "He's a real racehorse and I'm hoping that the mile and half [in Belmont] is up his alley too...It's a dream for any trainer to do this."
The Belmont presents the most unique test of all the Triple Crown races. At a mile-and-a-half, it requires stamina and top-end quickness. The race is not won with one dash to the front, but rather the ability to make multiple runs amid oncoming opponents. Commanding Curve nearly caught California Chrome at Churchill Downs, while Ride On Curlin nearly did the same Saturday. That extra quarter-mile could have been the difference between two wins and defeats.
With the Belmont being his third race in roughly a month, it's fair to question whether California Chrome will have the same stamina. Then again, that would require fitting this horse into an established criteria. And that just ain't happening.
California Chrome's origin story is near-mythic at this point. Co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, on something of a whim, purchased a horse no one wanted, Love the Chase, for $8,000. They then spent another $2,000 to breed Love the Chase with the equally unheralded Lucky Pulpit, creating a grand total of $10,000 in investments. The two were so serious about their endeavor that they named their company Dumbass Partners.
They then enlisted the help of Art Sherman. A former jockey turned longtime trainer, Sherman had a long, respectable career but was largely anonymous. Most of his victories came in small-time Californian venues, where competition is typically middling at best. Bob Baffert, this man was not. Sherman had never trained a Kentucky Derby horse before.
The only person with even remote connections to the height of the sport was Espinoza—whose career had seemingly peaked more than a decade ago. Espinoza had been on the slow decline since winning the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness atop War Emblem, finishing 20th or worse in the yearly jockey rankings in five of his last six years.
Put this all together and, well, Dumbass Partners indeed. And yet, here we are. The $10,000 investment is a horse that's won millions on the track and is worth millions more. Sherman became the oldest trainer in history to win a Kentucky Derby. Espinoza went from a career nadir back to the pinnacle of the sport.
It's horse racing's most unlikely story made possible by one of the best horses in modern history. California Chrome shapes up as our best possible Triple Crown hope since Big Brown in 2008. We all know how Big Brown's story ended: a cracked hoof, a loose shoe and a failed finish.
California Chrome might share a similar fate. He's already benefited from a weak crop of competitors and two beautiful race days. Not a drop of rain or even a truly legitimate competitor to be found. Each of the horses that sat out the Kentucky Derby in hopes of robbing a Preakness win looked particularly weak in comparison.
Maybe in past years California Chrome wouldn't have won the Preakness. Hell, we pretty much know that in past years his time wouldn't have been good enough to win at Churchill Downs. Perhaps this will all catch up to him in three weeks at the Belmont.
But given how unlikely this horse's journey has been, maybe California Chrome deserves a break or two.
Lord knows everyone tangentially linked to him has already gotten theirs.
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