The day California Chrome ran away with the Santa Anita Derby was my first day working at the Paulick Report.
I had taken the job a week before and was eager to begin. I was not disappointed in the least with my first day at work. Wicked Strong put in his good run at Aqueduct, then it was Santa Anita time. I knew that California Chrome had been impressive in the San Felipe, but was rooting for Candy Boy to take him down.
Candy Boy didn’t even get close. Nor did Hoppertunity, a highly regarded Baffert horse. No, California Chrome hit the lead on the far turn and was all alone, all the way to the wire. It was one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby prep races I had ever seen.
So for the next month after that, the build-up towards the Kentucky Derby snowballed into something enormous. I had never seen a horse go into the Derby as popular as “Chrome.” And I had a bird’s eye view. Maybe not the closest bird, but still a bird. I was more involved with this Triple Crown campaign than I have been in my entire life.
I couldn’t stop my emotions when he hit the stretch in the Derby five lengths in front and cruised home to win. I burst into tears…and I seldom cry at horse races.
California Chrome had earned the roses fair and square. He lived up to the hype that the media had created. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, that Derby victory.
Next up was the Preakness, that great wild-card of Pimlico. Derby winners either fare well there and carry hope with them to New York, or they lose their luster and the Triple Crown dream dies. I was of the opinion that this one wouldn’t be a problem for Chrome.
It wasn’t. He won, again. And I yet again burst into tears, even more joyful ones than before, for the dream lived on and would be headed to Belmont.
The last time I was this emotionally invested in a Triple Crown hopeful, I was nine years old and knew next to nothing about the sport. It was a small, handsome liver chestnut that stole my heart in 2004. His name was Smarty Jones, and he was passed in the final furlong by a horse named Birdstone, a stallion whose foals I now cheer on.
My heart was broken, but I carried on. My knowledge grew, and my love grew even faster. Soon I was forever entwined with a sport that most people consider to be dying.
And my heart healed, though a little crack still remains. It aches a bit, when I watch the replay of that Belmont.
So California Chrome had taken the Preakness, as well. He was the latest of thirteen horses to take home the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed got the job done in 1978. And many people, from novices to experts, pundits to horsemen, felt that the copper-colored colt from California would get it done.
He was calm and collected in New York…almost eerily so. His coat barely held a sheen of sweat, his eyes were gentle, and he walked confidently out onto the track to the cheers of more than 100,000 adoring fans.
To me, in that moment, he looked like a Triple Crown winner. Put him in a black and white photo and stand him next to Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat…and he would belong.
I began praying, addressing my pleas to anyone out there that would listen.
Keep him safe. Keep him healthy. Give him running room, and give him the strength for twelve furlongs.
Please, dear God, give us a Triple Crown winner.
He broke a little funny, stumbling a little out of the gate. Apparently the horse beside him, Matterhorn, stepped on California Chrome’s foot, ripping part of it off. Nevertheless, he continued on, taking the lead for a brief instant before Pletcher’s Commissioner snatched it from him. Then he ended up fourth behind horses and didn’t look at all comfortable about it. Then he ended up wide on the turn, then he was coming, and then not, and he was flattening…
As the big chestnut colt failed to make up ground, the hope held for weeks began to diminish. The dream was flickering like a flame in the wind, dying, dying…and then was extinguished as California Chrome crossed the wire, in not first but fourth place.
After the Derby and the Preakness, I cried and cried, tears that felt right in my eyes, tears that rolled happily down my cheeks.
I was the reverse on Belmont day, bawling nervously through the post parade and falling quiet after they hit the wire.
Well, not completely quiet. I could feel “no, no, no,” sadly emerging from my lips, but wasn’t sure how loud my distress was.
I sat in silent misery for the rest of the night, exhausted from the long day. I didn’t want to talk about the race. I couldn’t even watch the replay, shutting off the TV after the wire and missing Coburn’s incendiary comments. My cat jumped on the couch and stared at me with big, expressive eyes, trying to figure out what was the matter with this comatose human, curled up silently on the couch.
But Sunday morning, I woke up, and everything was fine. The Triple Crown would remain untouched for another year, yet life went on.
So I remain a California Chrome fan – a Chromie, if you will. I have several buttons that the awesome Derek Brown made, the Preakness and Belmont are still on my DVR for future viewing, and every kind word I’ve written about Chrome is still true. Win or lose – and, alas, he lost – he would remain a brilliant horse.
Now I come to ask, to beg, that this horse be kept in training. Because if Smarty Jones’ loss hurt me, his subsequent retirement hurt worse. I got so excited to see Afleet Alex in training at Belmont Park in late June, then was crushed when he was sent to stud later in the year.
Winning the Triple Crown wouldn’t be the best California Chrome and his connections could do for this sport. Keeping him around for the fans to enjoy would be.
It would be a shame if America’s love affair with this horse lasted only a few weeks. A whirlwind tour brought to a screeching halt by a lucrative stud deal – really, does anyone out there think that’s what is best for our sport? I sure do not.
California Chrome lost nothing but a crown in defeat. It’s a crown that’s eluded some of the greatest – Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and more. There is no shame in a horse doing his level best after two top performances.
Just as I still loved Smarty Jones after losing to Birdstone, I still love California Chrome and will be rooting for him in the future.
And I smiled to see that two horses that won Grade 1 stakes on my first day of work, Wicked Strong and California Chrome, finished in a dead-heat on Saturday.
It’s been a good two months.