by Rich Nilsen for Agameofskill.com
Twelve horses have been in position in Elmont, New York over the past 35 years, and every one of them has failed. It has not been without drama and heartbreak, as Smarty Jones and Real Quiet appeared to be ‘home free’ in deep stretch over ‘Big Sandy,’ only to get nailed at the wire.
Over the past several years there has been a lot of talk within the industry that the Triple Crown should be changed. Some want the races spread out with longer gaps between each event. Others want the distances of the races shortened, claiming that the modern Thoroughbred cannot handle the arduous task of negotiating an aggregate of 31 1/2 furlongs in five weeks at three different tracks. Fortunately, those arguments will be shelved after the outcome of the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
The Decade of the 1970s was a special time in racing history because three of the all-time greats, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, were able to pull off this monumental feat. It was extra sweet when Secretariat accomplished the task, not just because of the devastating fashion with which he won the Triple Crown, but also because it had been 25 years since Citation’s sweep.
This year I believe we are going to see our first Triple Crown winner in over three decades. One of the reasons for this is that many of the right circumstances have fallen into place for a talented colt that has forgotten how to lose.
SMALLER CROP SIZE
In 1916 there were 2,128 Thoroughbred foals born and registered in the United States with The Jockey Club. One of those foals would turn out to be a horse named Sir Barton, who in 1919 would sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and become horse racing’s inaugural Triple Crown winner. Fast forward to 1975 when no less 28,271 foals were born and among them was a striking chestnut for Harbor View Farm. Named Affirmed by Louis Wolfson, he would gain fame by defeating his arch rival Alydar in the three consecutive races and becoming horse racing’s last Triple Crown champion.
An epidemic, known as the Mare Reproductive Lose Syndrome, hit the breeding industry in the early 2000s. Coupled with a poor and uncertain economy a few years later, the result was a sharp drop in the number of matings. The big slide began in 2009 when the crop dropped 8.5 percent, below 30,000 foals for the first time since 1976. It got worse the next year, as only 25,891 were produced in 2010, a 12.5-percent drop. In 2011, the year California Chrome was foaled, only 23,150 foals were born. This was the smallest Thoroughbred crop since 1969.
This plays into Chrome’s favor as fewer foals means less quality competition. It can be argued that some of the best from this crop, such as Honor Code, Top Billing, New Year’s Day, and Shared Belief, didn’t make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Every year top horses fail to make it to the Derby, but a smaller crop has resulted in fewer fast horses remaining as viable threats for the winner’s circle.
There are some racing fans who feel the same way about California Chrome that they and others felt about Real Quiet (who began his career in New Mexico) and the New York-bred Funny Cide, when those runners were in position to join a list that includes Citation and Secretariat. Is California Chrome worthy of being on such a prestigious list? In this handicapper’s opinion, the answer is absolutely yes.
No matter what Chrome accomplishes the rest of his career, it is unlikely that he will go down as one of the top 10 or 20 greatest Thoroughbreds of all time. But that doesn’t really matter. He is a talented horse in a small and weak crop. This doesn’t diminish his feat, as it is much tougher now to win the Triple Crown than when Gallant Fox did it back in 1930 due to the vastly larger foals crops and the number of starters in each race. But the fact that California Chrome hails from the smallest crop since the late 1960s plays to his advantage, statistically, and gives him a better overall chance than horses like Alysheba and Sunday Silence who came from crops more than twice the size of 2011.
It’s fairly simple. No one will confuse any of the potential starters in this year’s Belmont with the likes of Easy Goer, Bet Twice, Java Gold or Lost Code. Sunday Silence had to face the great Easy Goer on his home track, and the result wasn’t even close.
We all know by now that the California star brings along a great story. He is trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, one of the better trainers in California over the past several decades. At the age of 18 he was the exercise rider for Swaps, who captured the 1955 Kentucky Derby and won a remarkable 19 of 25 lifetime races. The chestnut colt would go on to be listed as the 20th greatest racehorse of all time by The Blood-Horse magazine.
In the game for no less than seven decades, and having enjoyed plenty of success with lesser quality runners out west, Sherman would not have his first starter in the Run for the Roses until this year.
But if the Art Sherman story weren’t enough, California Chrome has the added appeal of coming from the most humble of beginnings. The owners, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, bought his mare for only $8,000 and bred her to a little known stallion in California named Lucky Pulpit. They were called ‘dumb asses’ by some of their friends, so they named their stable Dumb Ass Partners.
The result of the breeding was a beautiful reddish colt with four white ‘socks,’ and for some unknown and unexplainable reason, owner Perry Martin knew this foal had a big future. In fact, he vowed to stay in the game until Chrome had the opportunity to prove himself. It’s hard to make this stuff up.
Chrome would show talent at an early age, but while the best horses were competing in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, he was found losing on the undercard in a state-bred stakes race. At that point of his career, becoming a starter, never less the favorite, in the 2014 Kentucky Derby would have been a 1,000-1 shot.
However, anyone who has followed California racing over the past few years knows the type of remarkable horseman Art Sherman is. This is a man who in 2007 started 861 horses and won with 207 of them, an incredible 24-percent win rate. And that particular year was far from an anomaly, as Sherman consistently won with a high percentage of horses year-in and year-out during a long time span that started in the early 1980s.
Sherman has demonstrated his expertise again with his masterful training of Chrome, and this is a critical factor in the colt’s chances in New York. Not only has he turned this Cal-bred into a Grade 1-winning machine, but he has given the colt the best possible chance of sweeping the Triple Crown. By easing back on the horse’s workload prior to both the Derby and especially the Preakness (no published works in the two week gap), Sherman comes to Belmont with the freshest horse possible under the circumstances.
Also in Chrome’s corner is Victor Espinoza, a great rider who is six for six aboard the colt. Jockey Stewart Elliott was blamed for the premature move of Smarty Jones in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, and that is unlikely to occur with a rider like Espinoza, a jock who has ridden at Belmont Park numerous times and is very familiar with the big, sweeping turns. Espinoza is well aware of the fact that he can’t move too soon in the 12 furlong race. If he has enough horse, he will move him at the right time.
There are a few talented horses in California Chrome’s crop, such as Ride On Curlin, Commanding Curve and Wicked Strong. However, these are all horses that are subject to bad trips and not extremely fast from a speed figure perspective. Chrome, with good early speed and tactical ability, creates his own luck. He got a perfect path in the Kentucky Derby because he made his own trip. That is a tremendous asset when the money is on the line.
The horse racing community has been crying for a Triple Crown winner for quite some time. We have all wanted another Secretariat, a horse that can captivate the American public and put racing back in the headlines. California Chrome is no Secretariat, but he is a talented horse with a big heart, a great trainer and jockey, and the perfect running style that includes push-button acceleration.
He carries with him a great story, which has already caught the attention of the general public, and it is only going to be better next Saturday.
~ Rich Nilsen is a 12-time NHC qualifier and founder of agameofskill.com, an educational, horseracing handicapping site.