Is California Chrome the Perfect Horse?

Is California Chrome the Perfect Triple Crown Winner for Racing?

Horse racing followers have been waiting 36 years for a Triple Crown winner. As has been discussed in these pages before, the sport has been in a steady popularity decline over those three-plus decades. When discussing events which could pull racing out of its doldrums, one thing comes up nearly universally – a Triple Crown winner. But not all Triple Crown winners are created equal. For racing, it would take a very extraordinary horse to win the Triple Crown and subsequently maintain the star power required to single-horsedly lift the sport to a higher sustained level of popularity. Is California Chrome that horse?

What would the sport-saving super horse look like? He or she would have to have several characteristics: (i) dominance; (ii) a fantastic human interest story behind the connections; (iii) a trainer who is beyond reproach; (iv) career longevity – racing at least through age four; and (v) a serious and legitimate rival.

California Chrome ticks most of these boxes and, by the end of the day tomorrow, may check off any of the ones he has not yet gotten to. Let’s go one by one.

• Dominance: How about a six race win streak for dominant? And beyond that, he has won those six races by a combined 27.5 lengths. Pretty good. Finally, all six of those wins were stake races, three of them were Grade 1s and a fourth was a Grade 2. Pretty damn good. If Chrome pulls it off tomorrow, he will add a fourth Grade 1, add a few more lengths to his total margin of victory, and be mentioned alongside some of the greatest racehorses ever to step hoof on the track. He will have proved his dominance – at least against his own age group…

• Human Interest Story: This is probably the most obvious requirement that California Chrome satisfies. Who couldn’t like Perry Martin and Steve Coburn (and we will get to Art Sherman in a second)? These are the guys that named their racing stable “Dumb Ass Partners.” Steve Coburn took a national media opportunity after the Preakness to talk trash about the snooty racing blue-bloods at Churchill Downs. It hasn’t been since Jack Knowlton and his bus-riding compatriots at Sackatoga Stable that we have seen owners this down-to-earth and likeable. Moreover, the horse was bred at Harris Farms in California. It’s impossible to watch this video and not get behind that group:

• Trainer: Art Sherman is the perfect trainer for this role. It’s almost as if the owners and trainer of this horse were right out of central casting. As has been repeatedly reported, Sherman is a horse racing lifer, beginning his career as a stable hand and serving as an exercise ride, including for Kentucky Derby winner Swaps. He began training horses in 1979, and is known for old school training techniques and an “oats and hay” approach. Prior to this year and the start of Chrome’s winning streak, Sherman had 10 graded stakes winners. This is no Todd Pletcher. If Chrome wins, however, I can think of no better person to serve as the face of the sport – to portray the prototypical horseman. Could you imagine the hand wringing that would have occurred had Big Brown and Rick Dutrow won the crown? Or I’ll Have Another and Doug O’Neill? What if we were talking about Tapiture and Steve Asmussen right now? The sport should thank its lucky stars that Chrome is trained by Art Sherman, and take advantage of that as much as possible.

• Career Longevity: This is the most interesting factor to us. If Chrome is going to be the Triple Crown winner that revitalizes the sport, he cannot win the Belmont and then retire to stud. In order to maintain the connection with the potential fans that followed him through his spring Crown campaign, Chrome will have to race through the summer and into the Breeders’ Cup. Obviously, if Chrome wins tomorrow, he will deserve a nice long break from the races. And the following recommendation absolutely applies only if the horse is happy, healthy and sound. But we firmly believe that for Chrome to be the “perfect” Triple Crown winner, he must come back in the summer and then must race his elders in the fall. We would prefer that he race his elders before the Breeders’ Cup Classic (either in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Awesome Again), but he must at least go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. We also think that if Chrome is to revitalize racing, he has to race at 4. He has to ply his trade in the handicap division and compete in races like the Donn, Dubai World Cup, Whitney, Pacific Classic, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Awesome Again and the BC Classic.

A lot of people will read the prior paragraph and think that the Thorobros are looking at Chrome’s potential through the rosiest of rose colored glasses. That may be so. But the fact of the matter is that Chrome may actually be uniquely-situated among modern Triple Crown contenders to continue racing after his Triple Crown career concludes. His stud potential has been much written about over the past couple weeks, and the consensus appears to be that his initial stud price, even if he wins the Belmont Stakes, would be in the $15 million to $20 million range. That’s undoubtedly a ton of money, but its actually not an outrageous sum compared to the amount Chrome could win if he stays in training, given the caliber of race he would be running in. In other words, his relatively unattractive pedigree could incentivize his connections to stay on the track. In addition, staying on the track opens up many other money-making opportunities that would capitalize on Chrome’s popularity and notoriety as a Triple Crown winner. Look at the recently announced deal with Skechers. The connections are already going down this path, and the opportunities will only grow if Chrome gets turns a hat trick tomorrow.

• A Legitimate Rival: We are by far the farthest way away from checking this box. Alydar is not walking through that door. Looking back at California Chrome’s win streak, there are maybe three horses that could qualify, provided they continue to race Chrome and somehow make the contests more competitive. I see those three horses as Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve. If Danza had been running in the Belmont, I would have included him too. Neither of these horses look particularly poised to mature into a big rival for Chrome and, in any event, Chrome is based on the west coast and Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve on the east coast. It’s hard to imagine the horses hooking up consistently past this Saturday. And in terms of the west coast, let me know if anyone sees Candy Boy or Hoppertunity filling this role, because I don’t. So this is the one characteristic the Thorobros are most pessimistic about (it also happens to be, in our view, the least important factor). Perhaps, if we are lucky, California Chrome continues racing and develops a late season rivalry with a horse like Will Take Charge, and then the decision is made to campaign Chrome at 4 and Will Take Charge at 5. That would be awesome, but seems extraordinarily unlikely.

It certainly seems like California Chrome represents a confluence of factors coming together and maybe, just maybe, he becomes the “perfect” Triple Crown winner. The savior-horse the sport has been waiting for. The Thorobros are not holding their collective breath, but at least the possibility is on the table. The question then becomes: Can the sport capitalize? We have some thoughts about that too (not surprisingly). Just see the prior post.

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