This article by Rich Nilsen appears in the June edition of Horseplayer Monthly. To read the remainder of that issue for free, please click here.
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 third leg is known as 'The Test of Champions' for a
reason. It's hard. They are not giving away history, nor should
they. California Chrome has to earn it.
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.
HORSE RACING'S TRIPLE
Winner Foaled Where Color Crop Size
Sir Barton 1916 Kentucky Chestnut 2,128
Gallant Fox 1927 Kentucky Bay 4,182
Omaha 1932 Kentucky Chestnut 5,256
War Admiral 1934 Kentucky Brown 4,924
Whirlaway 1938 Kentucky Chestnut 5,696
Count Fleet 1940 Kentucky Bay 6,003
Assault 1943 Kentucky Chestnut 5,923
Citation 1945 Kentucky Bay 5,819
Secretariat 1970 Virginia Chestnut 24,361
Seattle Slew 1974 Kentucky Black 27,586
Affirmed 1975 Florida Chestnut 28,271
12 Horses who won the
Spectacular Bid 1976 Kentucky Gray 28,809
Pleasant Colony 1978 Kentucky Dark
Alysheba 1984 Kentucky Bay 50,430
Sunday Silence 1986 Kentucky Black/Brown 51,296
Silver Charm 1994 Florida Gray 35,341
Real Quiet 1995 Florida Bay 34,984
Charismatic 1996 Kentucky Chestnut 35,366
War Emblem 1999 Kentucky Dark
Funny Cide 2000 New York Chestnut 37,755
Smarty Jones 2001 Penn. Chestnut 37,901
Big Brown 2005 Kentucky Bay 38,362
I'll Have Another* 2009 Kentucky Chestnut 32,339
*scratched before race day
Which list will he be added to?
California Chrome 2011
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
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
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
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
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
Rich Nilsen is a 12-time NHC qualifier and founder of
agameofskill.com. He serves as Director
of Player Services for BetPTC.com, the only ADW offering same-day cash back
rewards for members.