And, so it begins. For the second time in two weeks, California Chrome shined bright on the big stage. For the second time in two weeks, the modest California colt absolutely toyed with the field in a Triple Crown race. He cruised in the Kentucky Derby, but people thought his 2:03.66 was too slow. In the Preakness, the race was over when they crossed the finish line the first time. The ride by jockey Victor Espinoza was brilliant, and the time of 1:54.84 for 1 3/16 miles was scintillating.
Now, we wait. We wait for three weeks to see what happens. We wait and hope that California Chrome eats well, trains well, and that his handlers stick to what they do best and that’s deal with the colt’s—and the sports—best interest. But, nary 24 hours later, we already have issues to deal with. The mouthpiece owner, Steve Coburn, talks too much. Rather than be humble and embrace his blue collar background in a blue blood world, he is throwing barbs at the hierarchy of the sport. His calculated shot at Churchill Downs may be warranted, but it was unnecessary. He could have praised Maryland, Pimlico and the Preakness without throwing Churchill Downs under the proverbial bus. For many, Coburn is a breath of fresh air. The sport has always been stuffy, always been for cigar smokers and brandy sniffers, but Coburn wants his time and it doesn’t seem natural. You could tell that he had nothing more to say, but he kept talking until something popped into his head. He thanked the troops which is always a noble thing to do, but then he kept talking. Even Bob Costas, the best of the best, was looking for a way out. Coburn should take a page out of the Funny Cide and Smarty Jones crew: let the horse be the star. The big yellow school bus that brought the Funny Cide team to and fro was fun, ordinary guys having the time of their lives. In 2004, Smarty Jones was the Philadelphia Story, taking the hopes of the people and the city with him into the Belmont Stakes. Coburn is a successful businessperson, he is not poor, and he should be proud of what he has done. And, like him or not, he has an eye for talent. He spotted something in this colt with modest pedigree and as a scout, he did well. But, please, somebody needs to coach him on how to appeal to America.
Some people probably like Coburn’s angle. The anti-establishment for sure, the people who think Churchill Downs has sold out tradition for glitz and glamor, too, and there has never been a person who has a 100 percent like factor. Heck, Jesus Christ did nothing but good on his time on earth and he was executed. If Jesus had enemies, than the Steve Coburns will too. But, this is a great story and the important thing here is to tell the story of the colt, the colt’s parents, the quirky, but likeable trainer and all the rest of this feel good story.
As for the trainer, 77 year old Art Sherman, he is truly a remarkable story. He has been in the sport since the 1950s, but before 2014, most of America had never heard of him. The Triple Crown races bring the familiar trainers each and every year (where is Nick Zito) with Todd Pletcher, Graham Motion, Steve Asmussen and so on, so Sherman, especially at his age is a delight. But, now Sherman has opened up a can of worms, threatening to sit the colt out of the Belmont because New York prohibits the use of nasal strips. Please, Art, why are you doing this? You’re loveable with a great story, but now, you’ve already planted a seed should the Belmont not go your way. If California Chrome comes up short in the Belmont, are we really going to blame on it on a nasal strip? He has worn it in every race thus far, but because horse racing has different rules for different states, it won’t be allowed at the venerable Long Island track on June 7.
Sherman is already feeling the pressure, and that’s sad. It’s not the end of the world if CC doesn’t win the Belmont, but those who want to see him fail, will label him overrated if he doesn’t win. It’s kind of like the team who loses the Super Bowl. They win 10 to 14 games in the regular season, win two or three playoff games, but if they play poorly in the Super Bowl, they’re treated like the worst team in the league. All the great accomplishments are forgotten, but that’s the world we live in, the what have you done for me lately world and Sherman is well aware of that.
There are many causes for concern for Sherman and his fine colt. One is the distance, the 1 ½ miles that is the Belmont Stakes. Horses don’t really train for it, they kind of hope they can get there before falling apart. In many ways, it’s like training for a marathon. The marathon is 26.2 miles. It takes months of preparation, yet nobody actually goes out and runs 26.2 miles during their training. They run 16 milers, 18 milers and 20 milers and hope they can get those last 6.2 miles on race day. That’s how horses are trained. When was the last time, you saw a horse work a mile? A mile and a sixteenth? It just doesn’t happen, and it’s too late for CC to get “one of those in,” now. Yesterday, Chorme blazed 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.84. The Belmont Stakes record is 2:24 set by some horse named Secretariat and the second fastest time there is 2:26 set by Easy Goer in 1989. Let’s assume that 2:28 is the average winning time; that means the CC will have to run 24 seconds more than he did at the Kentucky Derby and 33 seconds more than he did in the Preakness and do it in his third race in five weeks’ time. That is a lot to ask of any colt, superhorse or not. That’s why the Triple Crown is what it is. That’s why the spread will continue. If California Chorme wants to be mentioned alongside Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Citation, he has to pull off the three in five triple.
Another concern is the competition. Let there be no doubt, Chrome is the best three year old colt in the country. But, those he destroyed in the Derby are waiting, rested and waiting for him to show that fatigue like Funny Cide did in 2003, like Smarty Jones did in 2004 and like Real Quiet did in 1998. If this does happen, there will be many who lament and will call for the old, tired, “you need to run all three so it’s fair,” a plea that is as nonsensical as any. When Nick Zito trained Birdstone over Smarty Jones, he was asked if he felt bad about the Philly Flyer not winning the Triple Crown. Zito simply stated that “you gotta play the game,” and that was that. This is a job, this is a sport and sport needs heroes and villains.
The biggest concern is the venue. Simply stated, Belmont Park is no ordinary racetrack; just like Jaws was no ordinary shark. This is a massive, massive, massive track. Saratoga can fit into it, as can Pimlico, just like Quint with Jaws. Unlike the others, they don’t pass the finish line twice, only once. The home stretch is long, the far turn is long and the race, of course, is long. The track devours horses like California Chrome. Everybody thought Smarty Jones was a lock; Big Sandy said no. Everybody thought Big Brown was lock; Big Sandy not only said no, but simply engulfed the colt, swallowing him whole before 115,000 stunned spectators. If Chrome loses in the Belmont, he won’t lose to other colts; he will lose to Belmont Park and its intimidating setting. But, if you can beat Big Sandy, she will tip her hat to you. She is not mean, she is not vengeful, she is not cruel, but you have to earn your win, she gives nothing.
Sherman is scared and perhaps a bit intimidated. It’s a lot to ask of his colt; three races in five weeks. Remember, no matter what happens, this is live animal that is in his care, something that Sherman doesn’t take lightly. The sport demands that if healthy, he send him to the Belmont, nasal strips or not. I don’t like the fact that just one day after a stirring Preakness, he is complaining over a silly rule. Truth be told, Sherman has angst about running him three times in five weeks because it’s not normal. But, I think he will warm up to the challenge, embrace it and try to beat Big Sandy and etch a place in horse racing history.
But, Big Sandy is waiting. She has set the date for June 7. She has given you an extra week to prepare, because she wants the fight to fair. Eleven times she has yielded, 25 times she has thwarted. She welcomes the challenge.
Best of luck to you both.