In a particular Gary Larson cartoon, there stands a masked, buck-toothed buffoon, perched behind an irate-looking cow. Having just carved his initial with a rapier on said bovine’s rear, the cartoonist focuses on his subject with the morbidly comical caption: “Practicing his skills wherever possible, Zorro’s younger and less-astute brother, Gomez, had a similar career cut short.”
The failures of siblings to live up to the abilities of their illustrious relatives goes back to Cain and Abel, and rarely has the subject of breeding been under the microscope more than with California Chrome, an unheralded racehorse who has become America’s latest darling.
Billions of dirhams are spent around the world every year in the quest to slake the unquenchable thirst of breeders, who simply want to produce the next great champion.
On the rare occasion, however, one of the little guys hits the jackpot, like Martin Perry and Steve Coburn, who bred California Chrome, this year's Kentucky Derby winner, for the meagre total of $US10,000 (Dh36,700).
For the same sum, you would be fortunate to obtain a pre-owned Ford from Al Tayer Motors, but the two men have already picked up $2,552,650 in prize money from California Chrome’s seven wins, which culminated in the stirring triumph at Churchill Downs two weeks ago.
California Chrome has a definite shot to win tonight’s Preakness Stakes in Pimlico, which would set the stage for a possible Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 7. The hulking colt was clearly a shrewder investment than a depreciating used car.
Perry and Coburn each owned 5 per cent of California Chrome’s dam, Love The Chase, but decided to buy her outright from the other syndicate members.
They tried to breed from her, but she did not take the first time. Persistence paid off, however, and when they paid $2,000 for their horse to visit Lucky Pulpit, their pride and joy was the product of that union.
Why Perry and Coburn bought Love The Chase, a filly who won only one of her six starts, is a story in itself.
“I looked at her and I said, ‘I want this horse’,” Coburn, a northern Nevada factory press operator, said by teleconference.
“She looked kind of small and kind of thinly, but she was a nice filly and she was put together real well, but she was a little immature. What I liked about her was how she was willing to learn and she was smart and she listened.”
Breeding racehorses is an inexact science, seen by many to be more of an art form that can be approached in a myriad of ways.
As proof, consider Frankel, the highest-rated horse to have ever graced the turf, and his brother.
Frankel retired in 2012 after 14 consecutive victories. His father was the dual Derby winner Galileo, while his mother was Kind, a filly that was good enough to win two Listed races, but no more.
Noble Mission, until fairly recently, had barely gotten the hang of racing, but with the application of head gear and a change in tactics under James Doyle, he has managed to string together two Group 3 victories this season in England and now heads for Royal Ascot next month. A good horse, but more Gomez to Frankel’s Zorro.
Sid Fernando, president of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., a California-based adviser to prominent owners and breeders, underlines how difficult breeding a champion racehorse really is.
Certain physical and mental attributes blend well together, while character traits and biology all need to be taken into account in the big, sloshing gene pool.
“The process is inexact,” said Fernando, who advised on the breeding of 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, another inexpensive mating.
“Ideally, the process of breeding racehorses involves breeding the best mares you have to the best sires you can afford. Within that context, there are many factors to consider: the physical matches; the ‘nicks’, the way sire lines combine with other sire lines; the ‘depth’ of a female family, which is to say, the quality of horses the female line has produced through the generations, and so on.
“Ultimately, however, the foal must survive, must have the necessary physical attributes, must go to trainers who know how to best-utilise the talents of said horse, and must have luck. And even then, success is certainly not guaranteed – certainly not at the level of winning a Derby.”
California Chrome was foaled on February 18, 2011, at Harris Ranch Horse Division near Coalinga, a former coaling station in California.
He weighed in at a mammoth 62 kilograms when born, which was so big that he tore his mother’s uterine wall and she had to have a year off from breeding to recover. To illustrate how similarities can be passed down, as with all animals, California Chrome has a sister, who is also on the larger side. She was born on Super Bowl Sunday in February last year and she weighed in at 58kg.
Their mother does not like other horses, and every time she got to the starting gate when she raced, she would wash out in sweat, leaving her race behind.
“She loves people but hates horses,” Coburn said of Love The Chase. “We thought she was going to eat her young. Her babies are the same way. They get used to people.
“Her daughter is a good-sized filly, and she’s got the attitude like her brother has. You know what they say about females with an attitude; it’s something to watch out for.”
So Love The Chase passed on attitude. She passed on size. Sifting through her pedigree, if California Chrome wins tonight, she may have just passed on the stamina that her offspring will need to take on the Belmont Stakes over 2,400 metres to become the first winner of the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
California Chrome may well be obscure, but thoroughbreds are so inbred, little research is needed to find the sport’s great names in his lineage.
The grandsire of Lucky Pulpit is AP Indy, the 1992 Belmont Stakes winner who counts the great Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, as his sire. As with most thoroughbreds, Northern Dancer, the most influential sire of the 20th century, appears on California Chrome’s dam side, and what Coburn and Parry are counting on most next month is the influence of Sir Gaylord, the Kentucky Derby favourite in 1962, who missed the race due to a hairline fracture.
“This horse didn’t even get wound up until a mile and a half,” Coburn said, warming to his theme. “I don’t think the distance is going to be the problem. This horse was bred to run all day, and he’s proven the longer the race, the better he gets.”
To illustrate how fortunate Perry and Coburn were, California Chrome was the first horse born in California to win the Kentucky Derby in 52 years. His victory has buoyed those on the west coast, according to Art Sherman, the colt's 77-year-old trainer.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true for a lot of people, especially the smaller breeders. They’ve got a chance now,” he said. “They don’t have to spend a million dollars on horses.
“Here’s one that’s coming from a baby and is a dream for the owners, and when you turn down $6 million for a horse, you know that dream’s got to be pretty solid.”
For many, California Chrome’s breeding and subsequent success is another aspect of the great uncertainty that makes racing so appealing – if it was easy, only those with the most money would win.
Perry and Coburn, however, found the racehorse of a lifetime, one in which America’s racing public has invested its significant faith.
“He’s got a good head, good shoulders, and no wasted motion,” Sherman said. “He just developed into a runner, and I’m kind of just sitting back and each time he goes out there it kind of takes my breath away.
“He’s just turned into a very beautiful-looking horse. He shines like a copper penny.”
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