California Chrome picks up second jewel

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

And the California dreamin’ continues. He did it again! Though pressed by a couple challengers in the last quarter mile, California Chrome came through and, urged on by jockey Victor Espinoza, went on to claim the Preakness, second jewel in the Triple Crown. He now becomes the 13th horse to have a shot at joining this elite company.

A large, festive crowd of 123,469 came out for the 139th Preakness, as Pimlico became the place to be on the third Saturday in May. If he’d been the favorite in the Derby, the ranks of his fans, called “Chromies” by the TV announcers, were now swelled by thousands of new believers. That’s why the odds were so low — he went off at 3-5.

An earlier mention of a minor throat problem in the horse was dismissed by the owners as nothing of consequence, and they were right. Rain at Pimlico earlier in the week left the track soggy, but by Saturday, all was clear. And unlike new challenger Social Inclusion, who couldn’t seem to settle down on his way to the gate, Chrome looked serene and relaxed.

Much like at the Kentucky Derby, after a good break, Chrome stayed just off the lead, tucked into third place behind Pablo del Monte and Ria Antonia. Because the pace was a bit faster, he made his move at the three-quarter-mile mark, held off an upcoming charge by Social Inclusion, and briefly was all alone. Then, suddenly, he was pursued by the fast-closing Ride on Curlin, who seemed determined to pull off an upset. But, as they said, this horse has another gear, and Espinoza pushed the button. Chrome responded immediately, and soon left this worthy adversary in the dust, finishing by 1-1/2 lengths. Thus, he became the fifth California-bred horse to win the Preakness and the first since Snow Chief in 1986. He’s also the first California-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby since 1962.

The victory was particularly poignant for jockey Victor Espinoza and his brother, Jose, who had been sidelined from his career as a jockey because of an earlier head injury. He had watched Victor win the Derby, and now he was there to witness it again at the Preakness. Jumping up and down, cheering, his reaction was simply ecstatic.

Victor recalled how, as a young boy, he had gotten his first riding lessons on a donkey. And now, riding for Dumb Ass Partners stable, he said, “I can’t get rid of it. It’s on my back.” But he’s never been prouder with California Chrome as his equine partner.

The human partners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, though delighted at the turn of events, haven’t changed their routine. They still go to work every day at their jobs. Coburn works as a press operator, and Martin runs a lab that tests electronic equipment. But they now own the richest trophy in horse racing — the coveted Woodlawn Vase. This vase was created by Tiffany and Company in 1860 as a trophy for the now-defunct Woodlawn Racing Association. The original, made of silver, was assessed at $1 million. But after 1953, when A.G. Vanderbilt’s wife did not want the responsibility for its safekeeping, the winners have been awarded a $30,000 sterling replica while the original is on display at The Baltimore Museum of Art and brought to Pimlico under guard for the annual running of the Preakness.

After the race, a tearful Steve Coburn expressed his thanks to the people of Maryland for their hospitality and friendliness, which surpassed what he experienced at Churchill Downs. This humble man also made sure to express his sincere gratitude to Raul, the horse’s groom, for taking such good care of California Chrome along the way. He even slept in the stable with the beloved horse.

After a brief rest, it’s on to New York and Belmont Park, where California Chrome is most likely to meet some previous challengers from the Kentucky Derby — plus a few new ones. And yes, his owners finally have permission to use the nasal strip in the race, so everyone, including the horse, can breathe a little easier. For those who go by the numbers, California Chrome earned Beyer Speed figures of 108 and 107 in his native state, but his 97 in the Derby was the lowest winning figure in the race since they have been published. Social Inclusion ran an impressive figure of 110 in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, but was later beaten in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, where he earned a 98. It’s said that numbers don’t lie, but sometimes you have to figure more than math in the equation. So far, California Chrome’s achievements have been adding up to a worthy sum.

From the May 21-27, 2014, issue

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