Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 4, 2014

Chrome Shines At The Derby

The sun shone bright on Churchill Downs on Saturday. A near record crowd of more than 160,000, from celebrities to hard-luck punters, jammed into the stands beneath the familiar twin spires, making the venerable racetrack their old Kentucky home for a day. It was Derby Day, the one square on the calendar when folks who otherwise wouldn’t know the difference between an exacta wager and an X-Acto knife become horse racing fans.

But while the spectacle of the Derby and the scene in Louisville of packed stands with women in big hats and men in summer suits watching a full card of races with dozens of thoroughbreds that sold for six figure sums at yearling sales is that rare day that attracts casual sports fans to the so-called Sport of Kings, it is also a mirage. The three Triple Crown races each spring and Breeders’ Cup weekend every fall are Brigadoon-like appearances of horse racing as it once was, and as it will likely never be again in this country. Far from the million dollar horses and multi-millionaire owners the everyday reality of this diminished sport is a story of fewer tracks running shorter meets for smaller purses. At more and more ovals in state after state, racing itself is now almost an afterthought, with casinos or slot parlors serving as the real economic engine of the facility.

In East Boston Derby Day was also the opening day of the annual summer meet at Suffolk Downs, the lone surviving thoroughbred track in New England. But visitors to the Suffolk Downs website are still a few mouse clicks away from garnering any information about the racing calendar that will run until early September. Instead the track’s homepage is dedicated to its ownership’s pending bid for a Massachusetts casino license, and there is a strong chance that if that bid should fail the meet that began on Saturday will be the last for live racing in New England.

It’s not just second tier facilities like the East Boston oval that teeter on the brink. In recent years the Big A, Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, home to the Wood Memorial, a major Derby prep race, has fended off a handful of proposals to convert the property to other uses. But for the fact that it hosts the Preakness, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore might well have been shuttered as well, a victim of poor management and infighting between government regulators, track ownership, and horsemen. Last fall the final field came down the stretch at Hollywood Park, site of the inaugural Breeders’ Cup races in 1984 and onetime playground for screen stars.

Some of racing’s decline is a reflection of changing tastes, with modern gamblers gravitating to the neon and glamour and faster results of table games and slot machines. But there is no escaping the fact that those most involved in horse racing are often the sports’ worst enemies. The continuing reliance on individual states for regulation means a hodgepodge of rules around drug use and often lax enforcement. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who has the second most career victories, is currently under investigation for drugging horses and encouraging a jockey to shock horses using a handheld electrical device during races. That didn’t stop Asmussen from saddling Untapable, who won Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, or Tapiture, who finished up the track on Saturday. Richard Dutrow, trainer of 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, was banned from racing for ten years in 2011. Doug O’Neill, who duplicated Dutrow’s feat with I’ll Have Another in 2012, has been cited for medication violations with sufficient frequency to have earned the nickname “Drug” O’Neill. Perhaps it’s no surprise that racing’s total handle has fallen almost 30 percent in seven years, from $15.5 billion in 2007 to $11 billion in 2013.

The millionaires and the big name trainers could certainly hope that the blue skies and bright sun over Kentucky on Saturday, along with the festive atmosphere in the stands, would make fans forget all that, for a day at least. But what horse racing needed most of all was a feel-good story. Just in the nick of time, like a railbird urging a long shot home in the final race of a long afternoon, that’s exactly what horse racing got.

This year’s Derby wasn’t won by a colt with regal bloodlines tracing back through multiple Graded Stakes winners. The winner wasn’t trained by Baffert or Lukas or Pletcher, nor owned by a Middle Eastern sheikh or one of the storied Kentucky stables. Steve Coburn works for a Nevada manufacturer of the magnetic tape that makes credit cards and hotel key cards work. His handshake partner Perry Martin runs a California lab that tests air bags. They scraped together ten grand to breed an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stallion. When friends mocked them for doing so they named their business Dumb Ass Partners, and there on jockey Victor Espinoza’s silks on Saturday was the DAP logo as he came out for the post parade astride California Chrome.

Coburn and Martin couldn’t afford a big-name trainer, so they gave California Chrome to Art Sherman, whose first trip to Churchill Downs was as an exercise rider for 1955 Derby champion Swaps. Sherman went on to be a jockey and eventually turned to training. He saddled four Grade One stakes winners on the West Coast before being given the big chestnut colt with his distinctive white markings. After Chrome cruised to a 5 length victory in the Santa Anita Derby for his fourth straight win, his owners were offered $6 million for a majority share in the horse. In what might have seemed like another dumb ass move, they turned the offer down.

So on Saturday a pair of owners from the gritty everyday world of thoroughbred racing and a 77-year old trainer who had never saddled a horse in the Derby saw their colt go into the gate as the favorite. California Chrome broke cleanly, stayed near the front in a middling early pace, and began to move under Espinoza’s urging as the field rounded the far turn. At the top of the stretch the favorite took the lead, and then broke away as if the rest of the field had suddenly stopped. The long shot Commanding Curve made a late charge, but this Derby belonged to California Chrome from start to finish.

Now the Dumb Ass Partners move on to Pimlico, looking pretty smart as they do so. Perhaps the feel-good story will end there. But for now only this much is certain; just one horse can win the Triple Crown this year. That it is the progeny of a $10,000 breeding, owned by two guys who until recently could never have imagined sitting in the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs, and guided by the oldest trainer ever to win the Derby, sounds like a script only Hollywood could love. But right about now, American horse racing could use a Hollywood ending.


  1. May be your best piece yet.

  2. Three comments. One factor that “inflates” the effects of breeding is the racing class, and the breeding of the mare. Try to get a useful, but claiming quality mare to a high class stallion with a full book every year. So the useful, durable mares wind up with the less successful stallions, magnifying the effects of breeding.

    The second factor is the vast amount of money that buys up a lot of yearlings each year and sends these horses to trainers who do not do well with most of them. Art Sherman gets few and he does well with them. If one examines the percent “win” or “on the board” finishes by trainer, those with the most wins and most money won often have the lowest percentage. “Successful” trainers get a lot of promising horses and do not do well with most of them.

    Finally, American horse racing has a high tolerance for drugs and batteries. You might think that a trainer with numerous drug positives would be out of clients. But clients often believe this is a trainer who will “do anything” to win, so they are tolerant. Despite the fact that there are NO well controlled, replicated studies that phenobutezone and Salix have any positive effects on racing success, (and bute use seems to have a long term detrimental effect), these drugs are used freely, in addition to the illegal medications. There are no studies on the effectiveness of shocking horses who are running in aerobic debt.

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