Jim Gath: A Tale of California Chrome


He started out as Lancelot.

And has become more like King Arthur.

He began with promise, but his two year-old campaign was a struggle. He won a little; finished up the track too often. Didn’t really know who he was.

And then, as a three year-old, he won the California Cup Derby. And then annihilated the field in the San Felipe. And the Santa Anita Derby. And the Kentucky Derby. And the Preakness. And, if he hadn’t gotten a gash in his hoof coming out of the gate in the Belmont, might have won the Triple Crown.

But, because he was still a youngster – & becoming over-confident & headstrong & cocky before that injury & subsequent loss, I think that injury & that loss hurt him emotionally. It told him that, all of a sudden, he wasn’t invincible. And it shook him up more than he let on & more than anyone knew – except, possibly, Art Sherman.

He was beaten in the Pennsylvania Derby. And in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His three year-old campaign was erratic, to say the least.

As a four year-old, he came back in the San Antonio Stakes & lost narrowly to Shared Belief. And, as human controversy swirled around him, he was shipped off to Meydan Racecourse in Dubai for the nighttime running of the Dubai World Cup. He ran second.

Perhaps unbeknownst to him, slings & arrows were being sent his way by a huge contingent in the racing industry – & a good portion of the racing public. He wasn’t as good as he had been thought to be. He had a big early three year-old campaign but didn’t really have the mark of a champion – his record showed that.

But I’ll bet that he felt each of those losses & they hurt like death from a thousand cuts.

And then something happened.

He was sent to Newmarket, in England, to prepare for the Prince of Wales at Royal Ascot.

And, for a few months, he galloped across green hills & up & down dales & meandered through ancient tree-lined pathways.

It was there, I believe, that California Chrome began to find himself. He had no competition but himself. And I believe he thought long & hard about who he had been, who he was then & who he could become. At first, he probably felt that he had been banished from the world he knew so well in Southern California. Banished from his friends. Banished from Art Sherman. He may have even felt he was being punished for not living up to the expectations that had been foisted upon him by so many.

So he ran through the countryside & looked deeply into his own spirit. Perhaps he navigated the very same trails that Lancelot & Arthur had trod centuries earlier. And he began to mature. At times, it must have seemed like a lonely exile. But it is precisely those lonely exiles that begin to build character. That begin to allow one to become comfortable within one’s own skin. And to learn who one really is – down deep in one’s soul. He was feeling better.

And then, the crucible.

He was stricken with hoof problems & couldn’t run at Royal Ascot. Many in the racing world shook their heads at what they considered the folly of sending him to England in the first place. All of that for naught, they said. And that talk followed him back to California, where he was diagnosed with bruised cannon bones & would face a multi-month layoff. He was done, they said. Done racing.

Although he had been reunited with his mentor, Art Sherman, he had to live through pain. Pain for days on end. He’d had pain for months, both in England & now in California. The crucible of pain.

When the pain finally subsided, he was a different horse. Different in his spirit & different in his body.

He worked hard. He worked with a new exercise rider – Dahighi Gladney – who was born & brought up in his own crucible: the Watts section of Los Angeles. And, somewhat naturally, a bond developed between two spirits who had been through hard times. And, of course, the love & understanding of Mr. Sherman soothed his soul, too.

And Chrome began to muscle up. And his mind grew sharper. And his spirit grew stronger.

And, this time, when he came back to the track, he slayed a dragon. His first dragon since his exile. The San Pasqual. And he ventured back to Dubai. And even with a saddle nearly slipping off his back, he won there, too. With authority.

Lancelot was morphing into Arthur.

In the San Diego Handicap, he stared down the mighty Dortmund & put him away handily.

And this afternoon, in the Pacific Classic, he became the undisputed king. The undisputed king of the world.

Against the magnificent Beholder & his old nemesis, Dortmund, Chrome broke on top. And he opened up a five length lead going into the first turn. And Victor Espinoza would later say that Chrome ran the entire race on his own. He broke on his own. He set his own pace. He ran by himself. About the only thing Victor had to do during the race was turn around & look for everybody just as they were coming out of the last turn.

Although some of the best horses in the world were chasing him for all they were worth, Chrome made it look like one of those jogs through the English countryside. As he & a smiling Espinoza crossed the line, it was clear that Chrome hadn’t even worked up a sweat.

This race was Chrome’s & Chrome’s alone.

By late this afternoon, there were no more dragons for the king to slay – they were gone, gone for good. The crucible had gone cold, having done its job.

He now stands alone.

California Chrome’s story is one of the wonderful true tales of our time.

The tale of a youngster who showed sparks of greatness early on & who nearly fulfilled the promise of that greatness in his precocious youth, only to be knocked down again & again. And when he tried to get up he was riddled with pain, again & again.

But, somewhere in those forested glades of England, he learned in his heart & in his spirit who he really is.

And he knew that, eventually, he would pull the sword from the stone.

This afternoon, that sword came free.

California Chrome is now the king.

Just like Arthur.

All hail the king.




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