California Chrome Road to Greatness

California Chrome - Road To Greatness

Leading into the Kentucky Derby, many dismissed California Chrome's chances due to his pedigree and the supposed lack of competition in his prior races. Others doubted his ability because the colt had never raced outside California. In contrast to the critics, reports surfaced that the owners had turned down a new offer of $10 million for the future champion.

The colt arrived at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 28, and was one of the last Derby contenders to arrive. He was flown in from California, his first time on a plane, and traveled quietly. He was the morning line favorite at odds of 5-2 and would go on to take the win. This win was his jockey, Victor Espinoza’s, second Derby victory, and would make 77-year-old Alan Sherman the oldest trainer to ever win the race.

California Chrome shipped on May 12 to Baltimore to run in the 2014 Preakness Stakes with only a two-week break. California Chrome was assigned the number three post position in a field of ten horses – a post that he shared in common with 1973 Preakness Stakes winner, Secretariat –  and was the morning line odds-on favorite at 3-5. On race day, California Chrome made a clean start out of the gate, was close to the front through the backstretch, made his bid for the lead at the far turn, and was first by the top of the stretch. The press considered the Preakness to be the horse's strongest victory to date. In post-race interviews, Coburn stated that California Chrome had become “America's Horse.” The win led him to become the only California-bred horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in Thoroughbred Racing history as he would continue to the Belmont Stakes in search of the Triple Crown.

California Chrome shipped to New York on May 20 in a semi-trailer horse van to compete against the 11 horses entered the Belmont Stakes on June 7. California Chrome drew post position 2 – again something he would share with Secretariat from the 1973 Belmont. Four entries had run in Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness, and there were four “New Shooters” who had not run in either of the previous Triple Crown races who heightened the competition for California Chrome.

On race day, Espinoza described that something “felt off” about California Chrome. Tonalist, a horse who had not competed in the Preakness Stakes, would go on to win the race, with California Chrome finishing fourth in a dead heat with Wicked Strong. Steve Coburn generated national media scrutiny when he questioned the current Triple Crown system allowing fresh horses that had not run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes to challenge horses who contested all three legs. He later apologized and said he “wanted so much for California Chrome to win the Triple Crown for the people of America.”

After the race, a review of the race showed that another horse had stepped on California Chrome's heel as both horses broke from the gate. As a result, California Chrome lost the race with tissue taken out of his right front heel and a small cut on his tendon.

In spite of his loss in the Belmont, California Chrome was ranked the top three-year-old horse in the United States by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA), and fifth in the world according to the World's Best Racehorse Rankings. Both chambers of the California State Legislature also unanimously passed a resolution recognizing his outstanding performance.  

The humble origins of the horse and the people around him played a role in his popularity, as did the horse's people-focused attitude. As “America’s horse,” California Chrome gained an enthusiastic fan base – now nationwide. This became apparent during the Santa Anita Derby when the horse's supporters were invited to join the owners in the winner's circle and over 100 people crammed into the small area. The word “Chromies” was first used eight nights before the Kentucky Derby referring to his loyal fan base, and continues to be used today.

As the California racing industry continues to struggle, California Chrome gave a much-needed boost to the sport. On a national level, it was said that Thoroughbred horse racing had not been mentioned on CNN for a long time – until California Chrome, that is.