Friday, June 13, 2014

This was supposed to be a recap of my trip to the Belmont Stakes, but it turned into something else.

I embarked on a week-long trip to cover the Belmont Stakes and California Chrome’s shot at Triple Crown immortality knowing he was probably going to lose.

Pardon my rationalism (or pessimism, as some may see it). But as much as I love that flashy chestnut with the big white blaze and four white stockings, there was little to convince me that out of all of the last three decades’ attempts at Triple Crowns, this would be the one. That he was more worthy than Real Quiet, more tenacious than Silver Charm, more favored than Funny Cide or Smarty Jones, or luckier than Spectacular Bid.

See, this may be the Chinese Year of the Horse, but it has been far from a banner year for horse racing. More equine casualties have rocked 2014 than its fair share, from the valiant Breeders’ Cup champion St Nicholas Abbey to most recently, Derby wiseguy horse Intense Holiday. And although this year’s Kentucky Derby felt like some kind of golden miracle when the favorite pulled away to a decisive win, and the Preakness was akin to outlasting a relay race of foes, I knew too well the challenge that lay before him in the Belmont. Indeed, so did we all.

Deep down, I felt Chrome’s hourglass of good fortune had drained its final sands. You can only have so much of it, and win streaks usually only last with careful handling.

But let me be clear. Some people think the dates of the Triple Crown’s three races need to be moved to make the feat more attainable. I scoff at this, because changing it won’t make it any easier. Sure, more time in between races will give the Derby winner a longer break and more time to prepare, but it will also give the competition more time to regroup. The Triple Crown is about a single horse being at a level above the competition and being fit with divine providence. The thing about horses is they can only maintain their peak, not to mention luck, for so long. Some may peak early, before the Derby, and when the rest of their crop catch up, they level out in mediocrity. Some horses might not run in the Derby because it’s too early for them to run against heavy competition, so they wait for the Belmont in June.

The variables being thrown at a single race horse are infinite. When it comes down to it, the Triple Crown isn’t meant to be easy. Horses aren’t machines. Well, there might have been one, but even Secretariat lost a few during his legendary campaign; everyone seems to forget he finished third in his last start before the Derby. For Chrome and his record, it was simply time for his streak to end.

And you know what? That’s fine. Because he’s done enough. He’s done more than we can rightly ask for.

Horses are miraculous creatures. They carry our hopes, they emulate our dreams, they give everything they have for us. But with this gift comes a price. This sport of ours is about the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Woe be the person who gives a horse their heart, because they will shatter it. Every single time. It might not be on the track. It could be the day they retire. Or they day they draw their last breath on a rolling green hill some thirty years after they’ve crossed their last finish line. But it will happen.

Yet we keep coming back. Because those who know what it’s like to have your heart carried by a horse knows no greater thrill. At the end of the day, it’s about them doing for us what we cannot. Whether it be an underdog winning against the odds, or maintaining a perfect record, or simply clenching that one day in your life when everything goes exactly right. It’s adoring the creature that fights her guts out, that refuses to give up, even if she misses. If only we could be just like them.

I love California Chrome even more after the Belmont Stakes. For one thing, he’s the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish the race since Smarty Jones in 2004, and lost by only 1 ¾ lengths. He ran every race, and gave us everything he had, even with a gouged foot. In a sense, he’s a throwback horse for simply doing that much. His incredible blue collar story notwithstanding, California Chrome is a dream horse. It’s been a privilege to pin my hopes to his saddle and be a part of the ride. If we are lucky enough to see him race again, I’ll be first in line to lend him my patchwork heart. And when he eventually breaks it again, I won’t adore him any less.


  1. Well said Jamie! I agree with a lot of what you said, and unfortunately it feels like a lot of people hopped off the boat when Chrome lost-- however valiantly.