Why California Chrome’s Fairy Tale Didn’t End Happily Ever After

A $10,000 colt became a $20 million thoroughbred by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but that wasn’t enough to solve horse racing’s greatest puzzle.

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The initial bet placed on California Chrome was considered a long shot. A new horse-breeding syndicate owned by a pair of novices purchased a filly named Love the Chase for $8,000 after she had won once in six lower-tier races and then retired. The owners of DAP Racing, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, were not typical horse people. Martin has a masters degree in physics, and owns a lab company that in part does analysis and testing for the Air Force. Coburn, the more outgoing of the two, is the face of DAP but by trade is a machinist from Nevada.

To start their stable, Coburn and Martin made a second curious purchase. They acquired Lucky Pulpit for the bargain price of $2,000—about as cheap as a thoroughbred comes these days. The stallion had won merely three of his 22 races. DAP bred their horses at Harris Farm, in Coalinga, Calif., another peculiar decision. Thoroughbred champions typically don’t come from the hot valleys of central California, rather the sprawling farms of Kentucky. A foal was born and the owners pulled slips of paper from a cowboy hat to determine his name: California, for his home state, and Chrome, horse-speak for the flashes of white splattered down the horse’s nose and at the bottom of his legs, which gave the appearance he was wearing gym socks.

Despite his inauspicious pedigree, DAP’s $10,000 colt, now three years old, entered Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with the unlikely designation of “America’s horse,” as the fast-talking Coburn heralded him. California Chrome had throttled the field in the Kentucky Derby (only the fourth California native to do so) and swept past another cast in the Preakness Stakes. Affirmed did the same in 1978, then won the Belmont in New York to become the 12th horse to take all three jewel races and seize the Triple Crown. An estimated 1.3 million thoroughbreds have been born in the 36 years since, but no horse has replicated the feat. And with each barren season, the pursuit of the Triple Crown has become an even greater obsession, foremost among horse people—breeders, owners, trainers—who spend millions to construct an animal with the bloodlines to solve the sport’s great puzzle.

Few horses—even those other 12 since Affirmed to arrive at Belmont one win from Triple Crown glory—captivated as California Chrome did with his familiar fairy tale. Nevermind the fact that as California Chrome, his chestnut coat gleaming like bronze in the sun, sauntered to the track Saturday his value had already eclipsed $20 million. Chrome felt like the Rocky of horse racing—the colt from the wrong side of the tracks who won when he had no business doing so—and for that reason it felt irresistible not to root for him. Coburn claimed his colt was charmed. Bettors placed over $9 million on California Chrome, the most wagered on any single horse to win the Belmont Stakes. And even NBC’s broadcasters demonstrated how tilted opinion had become. In pre-race predictions, many picked California Chrome simply because they wanted to be on record doing so in case the next few moments proved historic. What the fairy tale and the betting line -- California Chrome was the 4-5 favorite—masked was the reality that a number of factors were conspiring against America’s horse on Saturday.

After running twice in the five weeks leading up to Saturday’s race, California Chrome was fatigued from a grueling stretch that also included cross-country travel. Most of the 11 horses in the Belmont field had skipped the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 17, and one horse—Tonalist—had skipped the Kentucky Derby too.

Then there was the imposing nature of the course itself. Finishing the Triple Crown with the Belmont is like concluding a triathlon with a marathon. The oval at Belmont Park is North America’s longest at a mile and a half and called “Big Sandy” for its composition of sand, clay and silt that can make tired legs feel even heavier. The race’s length requires shrewd strategy. At Belmont, jockeys must not let their horse run too hard too early, and conserve some energy for the half-mile-long backstretch.

California Chrome bolted from the starting gate just before 7 p.m. Saturday and hugged the rail as the field began to circle the track. In Louisville and Baltimore, the horse had dashed to the front of the field, setting the pace. But here he hung back. It looked as if Chrome was lying in wait, but aboard the horse Victor Espinoza sensed a diminished vigor. “As soon as he got out of the gate,” the jockey said, “he was not the same.”

As the field thundered down the backstretch, Espinoza steered his horse out wide. He whipped with his right hand, urging California Chrome for one final kick, but the horse was swallowed. Tonalist, with his fresh legs, surged past Commissioner to take the race by a nose. California Chrome crossed the line in a tie for fourth and the crowd—some fans of horse racing, others of great spectacle—hushed. California Chrome’s fairy tale ending never materialized even though nearly everyone had wanted it to end with a victory. Even Joel Rosario, Tonalist’s jockey, said his win was bittersweet.

The cameras shot to Coburn, who over the past month has used California Chrome’s success as a bully pulpit. Before the race, he had entered the grandstands waving his beige Stetson in the air, as if already on a victory lap. Afterwards, the defeat stung bitterly. “It is not fair to the horses that have been running their guts out,” Coburn said, wagging a finger. He complained that Tonalist shouldn’t have been allowed to compete after sitting through the previous Triple Crown races, that the rules of the game were flawed. Coburn pointed at the winner’s circle and stated, “This is a coward’s way out.”

Coburn’s outburst shaded Tonalist’s moment and rubbed some of the sheen off of California Chrome’s fine accomplishments. As the wait for another Triple Crown champion continues, a question lingers. Isn’t going through the Derby and Preakness, being tired but then beating fresh horses what it means to be truly great? Had California Chrome beaten those long odds once again, that would have been some fairy tale.