By Fred Altieri
California Chrome is on a serious fast-track to become a horse for the ages regardless of the obstacles thrown in his path on or off the track.
The moment jockey Victor Espinoza rode the ultra-charismatic three-year old across the Pimlico Race Course finish line in their now-familiar grand style to win the 139th Preakness Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths in front of a record crowd on Saturday, May 17, he was suddenly staring at the New York Racing Association and company from the tip of the flaired nasal strip adorning his elegant white-marked nose.
The race itself was a variation of a common theme the Art Sherman Racing team has developed over the past six stake races the chestnut wonder has mastered. Trainer Art Sherman, now in possession of 2/3rds of the Triple Crown gems as he had won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, practically wrote the two minute script in his NBC broadcast pre-race interview: "I'd like to see him if there's three speed horses in there I think laying fourth down there on the backside just having dead aim at the leaders.
"I prefer him to be outside of the horses so he don't get in any trouble. Once he's in the clear anytime I think that Victor can press on the button he'll be gone... I feel really good about this race, too."
This time California Chrome was pushed more aggressively and often from a 10-horse field than in his previous five races. He responded with a strong move to the outside early. He was steady but alert from Espinoza's encouraging strokes when Ride On Curlin made a last-gasp hard-charge at him for the last remaining strides. It was no contest.
Social Inclusion gave him the greatest run for his money during the fast-paced event until he succumbed to his own tactic of applying pressure early on the far corner. California Chrome not only withstood the premature advance, he altered his routine with mature execution by extending the move into his favorite launching-pad spot: at the top of the stretch.
Espinoza was grateful for having won his fourth Triple Crown race: "It is an awesome feeling to be able to have a horse like California Chrome. Today, it was just a crazy race but... I got more tired mentally than physically riding him but it worked out well and he is just an amazing horse."
He acknowledged it was a challenge for the duo: "I see another horse going outside I said, "Well, I'm going to sit right behind him." I was going to sit like second. The next thing I knew I see another one. It moved too early. So I had to use my brains too much at that point. But I sit back and until the other horse got clear of me. It worked out perfect. I just tracked them."
Espinoza noticed the strategic adjustment from the field: "The other horse moved a little early, the outside horse, the eight horse. It moved in a half mile and I thought it was a little bit too soon but I had to go at that point. I just go steady, steady with him because it's still a long ways to go."
Real controversy was threatening to unfold less than one day later as it became more widely known that the Belmont's stewards: the New York Racing Association, the New York Gaming Commission and The Jockey Club had yet to allow the use of nasal strips within their jurisdiction even though the such breathing aids have been around for 15 years and are legal throughout the rest of the country. California has been using a nasal strip since the beginning of his current six stakes race winning streak.
The last notable incident involving nasal strips was two years ago when I'll Have Another, trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden by Mario Gutierrez, won the 2012 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, was denied the use of the product. Unfortunately the racing world never got to see I'll Have Another race for the Triple Crown as he was scratched from the lineup on the eve of The Belmont due to tendonitis.
Co-owners: Perry Martin, the person responsible for introducing the nasal strip to California Chrome, and Steve Coburn considered not allowing their superstar to run in The Belmont if the breathing aid was not allowed. Coincidence or not, Espinoza became California Chrome's jockey the same race the nasal strips were incorporated. Six races later they remain undefeated.
Fortunately common sense prevailed and justice was quick for once. The industry and its supporters breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the stewards met on Monday, May 19 and issued this statement:
"The Stewards considered Dr. Palmer's advice and thus determined to specifically approve the unregulated use of the nasal strips pursuant to N.Y.S. Gaming Commission Rule 4033.8. That rule provides, "Only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race."
N.Y. State Gaming Commission Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer influentially wrote in part: "I recommend that the stewards at State-based Thoroughbred racetracks discontinue their ban on equine nasal strips. Equine nasal strips do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety and as such do not need to be regulated."
Coburn, known to not mince words, was not shy about his number one colt before the race: "I've got a great, great feeling about this because this colt, he's got a lot of heart. He loves what he does. This is not just DAP Racing. This is DAP family and this horse is America's horse. He really, really is."
He was equally grateful for those who have taken care of California Chrome, especially the groom, Raul Rodriquez: "We're blessed to have this horse and everybody involved in the horse and the training and the handlers. Raul is the groom. I just want to say: "Thank you, Raul, for taking such good care of this horse."
Meanwhile, back at California Chrome's official stomping grounds in Southern California, Los Alamitos Race Course, Rodriguez's family happens to take care of the rest of horses for Art Sherman Racing. They also took an hour out of their busy day and strolled to the racetrack decked out in matching purple shirts and green hats to watch the NBC broadcast on one of the many monitors throughout the revitalized facility, complete with the loud and boisterous 'Chromies' anticipating another California love-in.
The place was literally rocking and reverberating from the ecstatic screaming and cheering as Espinoza pressed the button and Chrome was gone. Raul's brother, Oscar Rodriguez, along with his wife, Iliana, Raul's wife Florentina and Raul's son, Junior, feed, groom, wash, walk and care for the more than dozen thoroughbreds at the modest Sherman barn located less than a half-mile from the racetrack at Los Al, as it's called. Oscar gave his first hand account of the family's experience watching the race together:
"Before the race we were watching on the T.V. at our barn until we saw them leaving the paddock for the track. That's when we got up and went to the racetrack to watch it on T.V. there. I was nervous before the race but before the gates opened to start the race I saw Chrome was moving around. So that made me feel more relaxed because he likes to do that. For him it is normal. When he came around the final corner we got very excited because we knew he was going to win. We were celebrating and even crying a little. Everybody here was happy for California Chrome."
Next up is the third and final gem of the Triple Crown: The 146th Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York on Saturday, June 7. You don't want to miss it.