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A Horse — And A Horse Story — For The Ages

Groom Raul Rodriguez rubs Belmont Stakes hopeful California Chrome at Belmont Park on Thursday.
Garry Jones
Groom Raul Rodriguez rubs Belmont Stakes hopeful California Chrome at Belmont Park on Thursday.

It's hard not to fall for a horse like California Chrome, a foal bred of ordinary parents who beats all odds and wins at the sport of kings. With Saturday's running of the Belmont Stakes, he has a shot at the Triple Crown and a fairytale ending to his Cinderella story.

We've heard many reasons why the odds are against winning the Triple — no horse has done it since Affirmed in 1978; the track is a brutal mile-and-a-half long (the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles; the Preakness 1 3/16 miles); and the grueling schedule demands three intense races in just five weeks.

But California Chrome seems like just the horse to surmount those odds. So many aspects of his story seem extraordinary.

In a business where horses can cost well over a million dollars, California Chrome's price was bargain-basement: His mother, Love the Chase, sold for $8,000, and it cost $2,500 to breed her to a horse named Lucky Pulpit. Soon after buying Love the Chase, co-owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn named their joint venture Dumb Ass Partners, after an insulting remark they overheard about their wisdom, as the Los Angeles Times and others have reported.

Adding to his underdog allure, California Chrome stands pigeon-toed on his white hooves — "they point east and west, his front feet," Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand told NPR's Scott Simon. "You can see it in the starting gate; he's like Charlie Chaplin in there."

If those tidbits already don't add up to an irresistible story, the Internet brings us more:

He's A People-Horse

His birth was difficult, and for several weeks afterwards, he and his mother had to be isolated from the other horses, Yahoo Sports discloses. He spent those formative weeks learning to play with the people who cared for him. "With no other equine influence outside of Love the Chase, the foal began to bond with humans," says Yahoo.

That love for humans will be especially handy Saturday, when 100,000 of the species will be packed into Belmont Park — most of them cheering wildly for him to win.

He Plays It Cool

Chrome is calm where other foals and fillies are flighty. Coburn and his wife, Carolyn, always came to the barn with a bag of horse cookies. Carolyn "would shake the plastic bag — a sound that would send most yearlings bolting. Chrome would run straight for his treat," the LA Times says.

"That's what separates California Chrome," John Harris, owner of the horse farm, told the Times. "He's not a stress cadet."

Possums Don't Scare Him

Chrome was unperturbed by an opossum on a recent morning stroll across the Belmont track, although the possum spooked the horse galloping next to him. "He didn't even flinch as he passed the cat-sized marsupial near the gap," reports Blood-Horse Publications.

He Has A Lucky Typo

When the Dumb Ass Partners team arrived at the Kentucky Derby, they found their official Churchill Downs saddle blanket emblazoned with the name "Califorina Chrome."

"Some folks felt it was a slight," writes Julia McEvoy of KQED. But at Pimlico, home of the Preakness, the misspelling was repeated — on purpose. Why? "Because anything that's worked to get California Chrome to the winners' circle thus far should not be messed with. Chrome won the Kentucky Derby after getting that misspelled saddle blanket. Now it's part of the winning equation."

And Of Course, There's A Prophecy

Hillenbrand, adds this to his lore: Before California Chrome's birth, Steve Coburn "had a dream that the foal would be a chestnut and that he would grow up and win the Kentucky Derby," she says. "And the foal was born on the birthday of his late sister, who had died of cancer, and it was indeed a chestnut, and [Coburn] believed from that day on that this horse was going to win the Derby."

But Hold Your Horses

California Chrome's engaging narrative has no effect on Barry Horn at The Dallas News. Horn suggests that NBC, which is broadcasting the Belmont, and the rest of California Chrome's fans would be better off if the horse were to lose. "If he is unsuccessful, it will only add to the anticipation the next time a contender wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown," he says.

That's good for ratings, he points out: Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977, with a viewership rating of 17.2. Affirmed achieved the very same triumph, the very next year, but the rating was a mere 10.9.

Hillenbrand, however, would rather enjoy the suspense.

"Pin your heart on this beautiful little horse and this odd cast of characters around him," she says. "If he is good enough to do it, you'll be looking at a horse for the ages."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

L. Carol Ritchie
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