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I had hoped (as had millions and millions of others) that California Chrome was going to be the latest Triple Crown winner. I had all kinds of comparative information all set up to discuss the similarities and differences between California Chrome’s Triple and those of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. I’ve been around for all of those. Only once since Secretariat, though, have I been so emotionally involved. It’s partially because Secretariat was the most amazing horse who ever looked through a bridle. Having been raised on stories of Man O’War (I read everything I could get my hands on about him as a child), I thought Secretariat was the first “Big Red” reincarnate. Perhaps he was. Another part of it could be that there had been the longest (until now) stretch between Triple Crown winners – 25 years.
I absolutely want to take nothing away from Seattle Slew or Affirmed. Both were amazing horses who completed the heroic challenge of winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. All bested the best of their generations. I think part of the reason that their accomplishments took something of a back-seat in my mind was that, similar to the multiple Triple Crown winners of the 1940s, several happened in a very short time. Perhaps we got a little spoiled; perhaps a little jaded.
This year, we had California Chrome. The whole story around this horse was “made for movies.” Actually, had anyone tried to script this, it would have been tossed for being too implausible. No one would ever believe that two complete neophytes to the art/business of breeding thoroughbreds could possible buy an $8,000 failed mare, breed her to a bargain ($2,500) stallion and end up with a horse that would end up 1-¾ lengths from winning the Triple Crown. Who does that? Steve Coburn and Perry Martin did. All of the back stories have been covered intensely, so I’m not going to rehash them. I do want to say that, as a former, very small-time breeder, these two were AND STILL ARE my heroes. I keep looking at them and saying, “That could have been me.” They are living proof that even the smallest of small-time can end up with a “freak” – a horse who doesn’t realize he’s not supposed to be that good – a horse that God gifted with the speed, endurance and personality to captivate and capture the American racing scene.
I’m not going to go into the human aftermath of the race because I feel it’s been covered ad nauseum. All I’m willing to say is that, while Steve Coburn probably should have just quietly said, “I don’t want to talk now, I want to go look after my horse.”, I completely understand the well of emotions that exploded in him when he watched his champion injured and defeated at the hooves of other horses. That was especially true due to the fact that the first two horses were completely “new shooters.” Only Medal Count in third had competed in any of the other Triple Crown races. It was a bitter pill and the reality blew up in Steve Coburn’s face.
The heel will heal in a few weeks. The scrape to Chrome’s leg/tendon probably is already gone. What I hope lingers is the magic that enveloped us all for so many weeks. I am also hopeful that this intense campaign hasn’t taken too much out of California Chrome. Huratio Luro, the great horseman and trainer of Northern Dancer, once said it was important to not squeeze the lemon too dry. Winning the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes is an amazing feat. Chrome really doesn’t have anything more to “prove,” but I hope he does come back and get back on the winning track this year. I also would love to see him continue to grow, strengthen, and come back as a four- or even five-year-old. As he gets larger, stronger and even more confident, he could show us an even better Chrome.
One last bit of business. Perhaps you caught my allusion earlier, “Only once since Secretariat, though, have I been so emotionally involved.” That “once” was in 1997. Another horse with a “metal” in his name was poised on the brink of winning the Triple Crown. Eerily, this horse won his Kentucky Derby on May 3 (like California Chrome), his Preakness on May 17 (like California Chrome), but lost his Belmont on June 7 (like California Chrome). This horse was Silver Charm. He also was a horse who came from California. However, his ownership and trainer were part of the everyday fabric of American horse racing. Bob and Beverly Lewis were the owners and Bob Baffert was his trainer. The Lewises were always a class act, so for their horse to win the Triple Crown might not have been such a huge surprise.
So, why was I so emotionally invested in Silver Charm? That’s an easy one. Silver Charm was bred in Florida on the farm of the Heath family. Bonne Heath and Jack Dudley (the man who sold us our very first broodmare) were partners for years. They are part of the Needles connection. I’d like to think that Silver Buck’s dam (mother), Bonnie’s Poker (who retired, lived and was loved at Old Friends in Kentucky), and my mare might have actually looked through the fence at each other over the years. Even more compelling is the fact that Silver Charm’s sire (father) was Silver Buck. The sire of the baby that Permanent Cut was carrying when we bought her was also Silver Buck. While it’s true that stallions can have over one hundred offspring per year, I always considered Silver Charm as a half-brother of our filly, Untarnished. Untarnished died from colic a couple of years before Silver Charm’s heroics so I always felt like he brought a little of her back to the racing world and to me.