BALTIMORE - Unless they're honking at a car with out-of-state plates that hesitates for a nanosecond as the light turns green, New Yorkers tend to be pretty blasé. The 100,000 or more who will jam Belmont Park on June 7 won't be. California Chrome's 11/2-length victory Saturday in the Preakness guaranteed that. The California-bred with the obscure pedigree will be trying to win the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed's 1978 sweep, and the crowd will be wired and inspired.
"It's quite a thrill," trainer Art Sherman said. "I knew he had to run harder than he did in the Derby, but he's a real racehorse. I hope the mile and a half is right up his alley."
Steve Coburn and Perry Martin bred their horse of a lifetime for a puny $10,500 on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, known for producing healthy tidbits for salad bars, not thoroughbred superstars.
"In my opinion," said Coburn, who has a great many of them, "this is the people's horse. He's been really giving everybody a kick in the pants. My house in Nevada is full of letters from all over the world wishing us luck."
Preakness day dawned cool and clear at rickety Pimlico, where a record crowd of 123,469 showed up hoping for a peak experience at Old Hilltop. Exercise rider Willy Delgado gave California Chrome his usual morning gallop and said all was well. When a local television reporter asked about the possibility of seeking immortality, Delgado said, "I try not to think about it. He's a pretty amazing horse. In thirty years of riding, I've never been on one like him.
"I'm really excited. We really have a chance to do something great."
No sport can match racing for rags-to-riches stories or the casts of characters it can bring together. California Chrome's saga reads like a mix of hallucination and a Disney melodrama.
Art Sherman, at 77 the oldest trainer to win a Kentucky Derby, returns to New York 70 years after leaving his native Brooklyn for Los Angeles. His father, Harry, owned a barber shop, and customers said his small boy should become a jockey. At 16 he took their advice, beginning a 61-year odyssey around the country as a rider and trainer. Sherman runs a family operation, with his younger son, Alan, serving as his chief assistant, while his son Steve has a stable in Northern California.
Coburn and Martin named their stable Dumbass Partners because someone told them that anyone who buys a racehorse is just that. Their purple silks display a green donkey on the back. Pretentious, they are not, so blue-collar New Yorkers will embrace these workingmen from out west. Coburn works "from 6 in the morning to 2:30 five days a week" making security codes for ID and credit cards. Martin and his wife run a consumer security company in Sacramento.
His accent and gray mustache make Coburn a dead ringer for actor Wilford Brimley. The Nostradamus of Nevada said that a few weeks before California Chrome was born, he dreamed he would be a chestnut with a white blaze and four white stockings. Lo and behold, he was, and none of Coburn's visions has been wrong yet. Before the Derby, he predicted the first colt he ever bred would win the Triple Crown. His one reservation was there would be fresh horses awaiting him at Belmont after they skipped the Derby and/or the Preakness. Can't be helped, Steve, because the Triple Crown finale is always the toughest.
Racing's most exclusive club has only 11 members. After so many disappointments, many believe there never will be a 12th. Something always goes wrong.
Maybe this time, it won't.