By Mariann M. Main
Anyone who knows me personally or from reading this weekly column realizes a few indisputable truths. First, I am an animal lover extraordinaire and have several “furry” children versus those of the two-legged human variety. Secondly, I will always support the underdog. And thirdly, my professional combination of a counselor-columnist thrives on an inspiring human interest “backstory.” This column combines all of those factions into one unlikely four-legged speed-demon underdog named California Chrome.
Steve Colburn and Perry Martin are not the traditional thoroughbred owners. They are working-class men from Nevada and California respectively, not Kentucky. Nor are they affiliated with any of the monopolistic racing conglomerates that have infiltrated the sport, transforming it into a corporate entity versus the prior idyllic environment of the scenic farms surrounding Lexington, Kentucky or Ocala, Florida. Coburn and Martin received such derogatory comments concerning their venture into this elitist sport, they named the folly “Dumb Ass Partners” with the DAP acronym proudly emblazoned on their jockey’s silks.
That jockey, Victor Espinoza, is a native of Mexico and was fearful of horses as a child. If not for the prodding of his older brother, José, who became a jockey first, Victor might never have climbed into a saddle. Victor learned to ride donkeys before horses, which is represented by the cartoonish-looking caricature adorning the DAP purple and bright green silks. Jose became the more famous of the two brothers, riding on the East Coast circuit, while his reluctant little brother rode on the West Coast, eventually and fatefully crossing paths with “the DAPs.”
José and Victor’s career trajectories abruptly changed at Saratoga on an August afternoon last year when José was thrown from his mount and suffered a traumatic brain injury. José’s riding career fatefully ended that summer day. José became Victor’s cheerleader as little brother suddenly eclipsed big brother.
Jose was in attendance at Churchill Downs to watch his younger sibling protégé win on May 3 and also this past Saturday. He was in the stands, not the stables, dapperly dressed in a suit and tie, rather than jockey silks, to witness the second victory of his little brother towards Triple Crown glory. The NBC camera recorded Jose’s every facial expression and movement. At the end of the race when his little brother crossed the finish line as the Preakness winner, Jose possibly had springs in his shoes for the height he achieved as he jumped for joy.
Art Sherman, California Chrome’s obscure trainer had toiled in the shadows of big time racing for decades. He celebrated his 77th birthday on Derby Day at Churchill Downs with his first big win from a horse costing a mere $10,000. May 3 was when Sherman’s stars aligned and his years of chasing an unlikely dream finally became reality. It is doubtful that Sherman will have another birthday quite as memorable or joyful being the trainer of that day’s 2014 Kentucky Derby winner.
My late father, Max Main, was a thoroughbred fanatic. He loved South Florida, and many years of my childhood were spent in Hialeah, near the recently reopened Hialeah Park, which is the first Florida track to test the concept of combining thoroughbred racing with a full-service casino. During the days when pink flamingos roamed the grounds, my father would sit in his trackside box dressed in a suit, tie and fedora, intently studying The Daily Racing Form.
Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner for thoroughbred racing in 1978, a trifecta of races which began in 1919. That 1978 event was simultaneous to my completing freshman year at The Ohio State University, and writing for the campus newspaper, The Lantern. Seattle Slew was the Triple Crown winner in 1977, a few months before my father’s August passing. It is doubtful he remembered that race as his cancer battle was concluding.
The beautiful chestnut stallion named Secretariat claimed the Triple Crown in 1973, a victory I remember watching with my father. Ironically, California Chrome resembles Secretariat being of the same magnificent reddish brown with a similar white stripe dividing his eyes and traveling down to his nostrils. Secretariat died at a Paris, Kentucky farm in 1989 after a 19-year life producing more than 200 heirs, but not one came close to repeating the Triple Crown legacy, in comparison to what party crasher California Chrome has achieved from obscure California lineage.
It is time for another Triple Crown winner; long overdue to be exact. There have been 19 horses victorious for the first two races, but faltered in the third since 1944. The upcoming Belmont is the longest in distance of the three racetracks. Since 1978, the sport has endured several scandals and on-air tragedies (filly Eight Belles’ post-race break-down in 2008), that have dulled the luster and mystique of what a 1,000 pound horse can achieve on four spindly legs.
Last Saturday, I warned my neighbors a few hours prior to post-time that any screaming heard from my house at approximately 5:45 p.m. should be ignored. Who knows what will happen on June 7, if California Chrome wins again. Please neighbors, don’t summon the police that evening for raucous celebrating when this longest of Triple Crown droughts hopefully ends. Shine on California Chrome, shine on.
Mariann Main is a Delaware native and Licensed Counselor in Ohio. She can be reached directly with commentary or questions at MariannMain@GMail.com.