I was a spectator at Churchill Downs the last time a racehorse won the Kentucky Derby on its way to the Triple Crown. And I wasn't happy about it.
A Kentuckian by birth, I was for Alydar that sunny afternoon during the first of his three narrow defeats to the Florida-bred Affirmed. Alydar raced with the red and blue silks of Calumet Farm, the most celebrated thoroughbred operation in the Bluegrass, its white fences and red and white barns the industry standard for more than 50 years. It just seemed proper and fair that Alydar claim another Derby for tradition and history.
But when Affirmed finished first with the teenaged Kentuckian Stevie Cauthen on board, then nipped Alydar again in both the Preakness and the Belmont to become the 11th Triple Crown winner ever, it really didn't seem like such a big deal. After all, he was the third Triple Crown horse of the past six years, joining the matchless Secretariat (1973) and unsung Seattle Slew (1977). In the 1970s, these Triple Crowns were becoming as common as leisure suits and disco balls.
Thirty-six years later -- the longest drought without a Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton first won all three races in 1919 -- it's suddenly a very big deal to see if California Chrome can be the first horse since Affirmed to claim his sport's greatest title by winning today's Belmont Stakes.
"It would be great for the industry," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farms, whose big colt Commissioner will nevertheless attempt to deny Chrome the crown this afternoon.
"Just the fact that he comes from humble circumstances, that the everyday Joe can identify with his story. It's created such attention for our sport."
You want humble? In a sport where most Kentucky Derby-quality foals go for a minimum of six figures, Chrome's owners put a total of $10,500 in the mare and sire who produced him.
"We have [ticked] off a lot of people in Kentucky, and in the thoroughbred industry," part-owner Steve Coburn told the San Francisco Chronicle this week. "They've thrown everything at this colt, and he's proved them wrong over and over again -- and they just can't figure it out."
Here's how little respect Chrome has been shown on his Triple Crown chase: His saddle pad for the Derby, which was reportedly made in Kentucky, had "California" spelled "Califorina."
Yet that disrespect sometimes fuels big upsets -- Buster Douglas, Butler basketball, Boise State football -- an underdog defying all odds to become the little engine that can. And it could happen in a way possibly never before seen on a sport's biggest stage if Chrome can shine brightest in the Belmont.
Coburn told the Chronicle that folks just haven't looked deep enough into Chrome's bloodlines. That there are traces of Secretariat and Seattle Slew in his genes, which would certainly give him the strength and stamina to successfully run the Belmont's brutal one and a half miles, the longest of the three Triple Crown races.
Walden isn't yet convinced of that, however, which is one reason he's running Commissioner, which has sat out both the Derby and the Preakness.
"Obviously, [Chrome] has dominated his competition (six straight wins by a combined 27 1/2 lengths), so it would be foolish to think you're going to beat him until you do," Walden told the Lexington Herald-Leader this week. "But strange things happen in this race. ... I think with it being his third race in five weeks, there are some fresh horses in there that are a bit of a danger."
And few know how to capitalize on that danger more than Walden, who trained Victory Gallop over Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont, denying Quiet the Crown. Still, there are lots of omens on Chrome's side, beginning with the fact that when he breaks from the No. 2 hole this evening it will mark the third time in the three Triple Crown races that he's drawn the same post position as Secretariat, who also broke from No. 5 in the Derby and No. 3 in the Preakness.
Go back to co-owner Steve Coburn and there's the touching story of how the horse was born on his sister Brenda's birthday. Brenda died of cancer at 36.
"It's been 36 years since anyone has won the Triple Crown," Coburn said this week. "When I saw him as a baby I told [wife] Carolyn, 'This horse is going to be something big and we need to make sure he gets to do what he's bred to do.'"
Or what about the jockey, Victor Espinoza, who rode War Emblem to a near Triple Crown in 2002 but failed in the Belmont and was considered all but washed up?
Recalling that heartbreaking defeat, Espinoza told the Los Angeles Times this week, "In 2002, I have a horse in the Kentucky Derby, and the next thing you know, I win. Big celebrity. Top of the world. At Belmont, when you don't win, nobody knows you the next day."
Added Walden, speaking of the horse: "Right now, he's a rock star. But if he loses, that will last about a week. If he wins, he's a rock star with longevity. He'll be remembered forever."
How's this for being remembered? Having fallen in love with Chrome's Secretariat-esque good looks, Espinoza tried for months to get his agent to convince the horse's 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, to give him a ride.
When Sherman and his son Alan decided to switch jockeys, they instead went with veteran Mike Smith. But Smith had forgotten he was being inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame on the same day (Dec. 22) that the Shermans wanted him to ride Chrome in the King Glorious Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Espinoza became the backup plan. But Chrome won by more than six lengths and hasn't lost since.
"Victor doesn't get in the horse's way," Alan Sherman said. "He doesn't try and make the horse do something he doesn't want to do."
And normally that's a good thing. But today Espinoza needs to do whatever he can humanely do to get Chrome over the finish line first. To become the first California-bred horse to win the Triple Crown. To become the first horse bred anywhere to win the Crown in 36 years. To prove that humble circumstances can still produce royal results. And that however you spell his name -- California, Califorina, Califormidable -- he's now a rock star for the ages.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com