Underdog stories are nothing new to the sport of kings, which over its long history has given us the likes of Seabiscuit and Upset, the latter the only horse ever to, well, upset the legendary Man O’ War. But horse racing has rarely seen a rags-to-riches story quite like the one currently being written by California Chrome, the thoroughbred contending to become the first Triple Crown winner in more than 35 years. The three-year-old colt, bred for just $10,500 in 2011, has already racked up career winnings of nearly $3.5 million, and if he follows his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins with a Triple Crown-clinching victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 7—the greatest achievement in the world of thoroughbred racing—those earnings will rise significantly.
But even if California Chrome comes up short, there are useful lessons to be learned from his story—lessons that can be helpful to anyone pulling into the starting gate for any of the various transitions and challenges life throws our way.
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- Don’t Run From Risk: California Chrome’s garrulous, media-friendly owners—Perry and Denise Martin and Steve and Carolyn Coburn—are a pair of West Coast couples who are not exactly To The Manor Born. Coburn is an ex-cowboy who works in a magnetic strip factory. His wife is a recent retiree, and Martin is a former Air Force engineer who now runs an airbag-testing lab with his wife. In 2008, they partnered up to buy a mare named Love The Chase for a mere $8,000—the horseracing equivalent of a fire sale. The owners have said that one of the other bidders claimed that only a “dumb ass” would buy such an unpromising and undersized mare. But In 2011, Love The Chase was mated with another losing nag, Lucky Pulpit, and gave birth to the chestnut-colored colt named California Chrome. The young horse has galloped to victory and fame wearing a saddle cloaked with a logo that reads DAP—an acronym for Dumb Ass Partners, the official name of the Martin/Coburn collaboration.
- It’s Never Too Late: California Chrome is trained by racing lifer Art Sherman, who takes a methodical, personalized approach to the horses under his care. Unlike other trainers, who run massive operations and sometimes work with hundreds of horses at a time, Sherman keeps things small, stabling just 15 and 20 horses at once. He grew up in the sport, starting his career as an exercise rider at Churchill Downs and moving from jockey to trainer in the 1980s. California Chrome was the first Sherman trainee to run in the Kentucky Derby, and when he crossed the finish line ahead of the others, he made the 77-year-old the oldest trainer to ever win any Triple Crown race. From all indications, he’s taking the success in stride. “I figure I’m lucky when I can pull my boots on in the morning,” Sherman told reporters before Chrome’s Preakness win. “I’ve got another day.”
- Be Adaptable: Love The Chase encountered complications during California Chrome’s birth and had to be confined to her barn. The new foal was separated from his mother for the first month of his life as she recovered. As a result, California Chrome had far more interactions with humans during his early days and weeks and became very comfortable interacting with trainers at a very young age.
- Work with the right people: In his racing debut last April, a two-year-old Chrome finished second. He showed flashes of brilliance during his first season but finished out of the money more times than he won. Then, last December, the horse partnered up with a new jockey, Victor Espinoza, a former Derby and Preakness winner who grew up racing donkeys in Mexico City. On their first ride together in December, they took the title at a stakes race at Hollywood Park—the final racing day ever at the historic racetrack—Espinoza and California Chrome have won every race they’ve entered since.
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Smile!: California Chrome isn’t just a winner. He’s a happy winner. The horse has a propensity toward the so-called “flehmen response,” in which an animal raises its upper lip and exposes its teeth, resulting in—that’s right—a smile. And we’re not talking about a faux, Mr. Ed-type smile either. The horse appears particularly delighted while being bathed or when offered a Mrs. Pasture’s horse cookie (the only treat he’ll eat).
Wait! There are more rags to riches stories:
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California Chrome: Rob Carr/Getty
Racing: Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Owners: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Smile: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press