California Chrome Brings Renewed Attention to Horse Racing's Mating Game

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2014

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Imagine hearing that there is a hot baseball prospect on the horizon with fascinating family ties to Hall of Fame players.

On his dad’s side, relatives include Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. On his mom’s side, the limbs on the family tree stretch out to include not one, but two ties to Mickey Mantle.

He’d be intriguing, right?

Now take that same prospect, give him four legs and feed him some oats, and you have Saturday’s favorite in the Kentucky Derby: California Chrome.

California Chrome is related to two of horse racing’s 11 Triple Crown winners on his father’s side. His great-great-grandfather on his father’s side was 1977 winner Seattle Slew, and his great-great-great grandfather was the horse widely considered the greatest of all-time, 1973 champion Secretariat.

Northern Dancer, the 1964 winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, who is regarded by some as the greatest sire of the 20th Century, shows up twice in California Chrome’s lineage—one time three generations ago, and also four generations back.

All of that information is easily available because of horse racing’s fascination with bloodlines. Long before Ancestry.com gave humans the ability to trace our roots, the thoroughbred industry was diligently keeping track of every stallion’s progeny.

On websites like Equineline.com you can type in the name of a thoroughbred and instantly go back five generations.

HORST SCHAFER/Associated Press

Anywhere else in sports, it would be mesmerizing to see the names of that many greats pop up in an athlete’s pedigree. Look at how much awe has surrounded Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning. Ken Griffey Jr. and Prince Fielder were the rare standout sons of MLB stars, and baseball’s brotherly collections of DiMaggios (Joe, Dom and Vince) and Alous (Felipe, Matty and Jesus, plus Felipe’s son Moises) were downright stupefying.

But there are all sorts of interesting family connections in this year’s Derby field. 

Harry’s Holiday had Harlan’s Holiday as a sire, who is also Vicar’s in Trouble’s grandsire. General A Rod’s bloodline includes Derby winners Majestic Prince (1969) and Real Quiet (1998), two horses who also won the Preakness before falling one victory short of the Triple Crown. Ride on Curlin is the son of Curlin, who finished in the money in all three Triple Crown races in 2007, and who is thoroughbred racing’s all-time leading money winner.   

For breeders looking at a horse’s ancestry, it isn’t about history, it’s about the future. No one plays the dating game like the thoroughbred industry, where the search for a perfect match never stops. The hope is to find a solid combination of speed, endurance and the key ingredient of past successes.

The rules about which horses can and can’t participate in this equine version of eHarmony are very specific, and have been governed since 1894 by The Jockey Club.

The stallion-broodmare hookup must be performed as nature intended, with no artificial insemination, no embryo transplants and certainly no cloning. The participants must be recorded in “The American Stud Book,” or a Jockey Club-approved equivalent for foreigners. And just in case there are any doubts, the rule book also takes time to remind potential breeders that, “A dead horse is not eligible for registration.”

An Australian owner-breeder, Bruce McHugh, attempted to overturn the ban on artificial insemination in his country. But, despite spending a reported $2 million spent on court costs, lost his challenge.

What’s particularly interesting about California Chrome is that he both validates and negates the obsession with structured breeding.

Other noble horses scattered around his family tree are two of the most successful sires in history, A.P. Indy and Mr. Prospector. A third, Bold Reasoning, died young because of a broken pelvis suffered in the breeding shed, but did sire Seattle Slew.

But California Chrome also fits the rags-to-riches image of a horse who somehow has soared to the top of the racing world despite having parents some might categorize as nags. His sire, Lucky Pulpit, commands a stud fee of only $2,500, the lowest paid for any of the 20 horses in this year’s Derby. His broodmare, Love the Chase, was an undersized underachiever who some thought never should have been bred.

Yet California Chrome will go off as the betting favorite on Saturday. He no doubt will be very popular with the same kinds of fans who in 1985 loved seeing Spend A Buck win the Derby, even though the colt had commanded only a $12,500 purchase price.

Two of the most prominent trainers at the Derby have opposite views of what California Chrome’s pedigree means to their sport.

D. Wayne Lukas, who has had four Derby winners, had a rather stuffy outlook. Interviewed by WDRB-TV’s Rick Bozich (a former Louisville Courier-Journal columnist who has covered as many Derbys as anyone), Lukas had this take:

Your best chance of getting in the Derby is still to get a good-pedigree horse that can run... When these things (like California Chrome) happen, it gives all the way-out-there lottery players the idea they can win the Derby.

I side with Bob Baffert, who has trained three Derby winners. He took a more populist view, telling Bozich that: “California Chrome is making his own pedigree.”

Horse racing needs more of that attitude. The lure of getting rich quick is what brought many people to the track in the first place, and the Derby is an event that’s designed for dreamers.

There also is something wickedly funny about the prospect of California Chrome stealing Saturday’s show, and outracing a horse like Medal Count, whose $150,000 stud fee was 60 times what Chrome’s owners paid.

It’s like the pleasure some fans take every time big-spending NFL owners like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder guess wrong on an over-priced free agent. And on Saturday, more than a few Derby fans will hope it generates another big horse laugh.

Tom Weir covered 12 Kentucky Derbys as a columnist for USA Today, and managed to pick the winner only twice.


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