By Franklin Zimring, The New York Post
This Saturday in Belmont, a photogenic 3-year-old named California Chrome, having already won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, will compete in the Belmont Stakes, and could become the first horse in 36 years to win racing’s Triple Crown.
I’ll be cheering for him, and you should, too. It’s been awhile since the underdog won, hasn’t it?
Horse breeding and racing wears its elitism proudly. Racing is called, after all, “the sport of kings” and the fantastically expensive requirements are regarded as a mark of distinction. Nobody is supposed to make a fortune in breeding and owning horses; instead, one is supposed to bring one’s fortune to the party. The old joke is that the way to make a small fortune by owning horses is to start with a large fortune.
But California Chrome’s owners didn’t start with a fortune. The horse is owned by two middle-class couples, Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, Calif., and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev.
Steve Coburn works at a company that makes magnetic strips for credit cards. Carolyn Coburn worked in payroll for a health-care company. The Martins own a small business that tests products, like car airbags, for reliability.
Both got into racing through a syndicate, owning only a small share of a horse called Love the Chase. Everyone else thought Love the Chase was a bust, though, so the Coburns and Martins put together $8,000 to buy the horse themselves.
Another owner said it was “dumb ass” to buy her. So, of course, their group is called DAP, for Dumb Ass Partners.
The owners paid a $2,500 stud fee, pairing Love the Chase with another unremarkable horse, Lucky Pulpit. They produced California Chrome.
How did they chose the name? The four owners put their choices in a cowboy hat — and drew the winner.
The major characteristics and beliefs that govern racing are elitism, a fanatic devotion to selective breeding and a strong belief that genes determine everything.
There is no nature vs. nurture debate in thoroughbred racing, because the orthodox belief is that breeding is everything. No wonder they call the championship racing series the Breeder’s Cup.
Genetics, and money, is their religion. Thoroughbreds are supposed to cost millions; “top quality” studs cost $150,000 alone.
Chrome is the $10,000 horse — the one that’s not supposed to compete.
Except California Chrome kept winning. And with the help of a 77-year-old trainer — who had never entered a horse in the big races of the east — Chrome easily took the first two races of the Triple Crown.
Our nation was built on stories like this. The little guy who isn’t supposed to win but triumphs. The hero who isn’t from the right class, or the right neighborhood, or the right tax bracket, who succeeds wildly.
But there seems to be fewer and fewer of these tales today. Not only does the little guy get crushed, but the game is rigged against him. Wall Street traders get information before the rest of us and profit from it. Government takes more and gives less. Companies are rewarded for having fewer employers with smaller paychecks. Even in sports, the team with the most money is likely to win.
Even if there was a bit of self-serving myth to the American Dream — there are plenty of people who start at the bottom, worked hard and stayed there — it’s a fundamental part of who we are as a country and an idea. We have to believe that anyone can grow up to be president, that anyone can be an overnight millionaire (through ingenuity, not the lottery), if we’re going to maintain our exceptionalism.
Those who look to America longingly — the immigrants that pour across our borders — they come for that idea. Here, you’re not stuck. Here, there is no fate.
California Chrome will not solve all the political problems that keep people stuck. But it’s good to have a story like him every so often, to remind us of that collective legend. To remind us why these stories always inspire us.
It doesn’t matter who your father was. Who your mother was. How much your family makes. Any “dumb ass” can make it in America.