It’s a little shocking, really, to think about how long it has been. The last time a horse won the Triple Crown, I watched on a tiny black-and-white battery-powered TV at a horse show in the summer of 1978, with a group of fellow competitors and parents who had gathered around our truck and trailer.
I pulled the saddle off my own horse and rushed to see a remarkable Belmont Stakes duel play out on that 10-inch screen, won by my twin crushes — the dreamy teen jockey Steve Cauthen and the magnificent Affirmed. All of us knew we had witnessed a race for the ages, with Affirmed fighting off Alydar to claim the third Triple Crown in six years. It never occurred to any of us that we would grow old waiting for the Crown to be won again. Or that horse racing, a long-running staple of the American sports diet, would become as unfashionable as meatloaf.
That is the backdrop as California Chrome takes his shot at the Triple Crown in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. The 36-year drought is the longest in history, with the last winner a relic from the era of Jimmy Carter and disco music. And a significant chunk of racing’s fan base has gone either the way of Affirmed, in his grave for 13 years, or Cauthen, who gained weight and lost hair on his way from teen idol to fiftysomething.
The Triple Crown trophy has been out of circulation so long that it might as well be encased in amber. But there is an old saying in racing: No one ever committed suicide with a good 2-year-old in the barn. It’s that kind of blind faith, that indestructible optimism, that has kept the sport’s devotees yearning for the next Triple Crown winner long after most sports fans marched on to other pursuits. And it’s California Chrome’s story that makes us so fervently wish he will be the one to finally reward us.
Racing has tested our patience over the years, to be sure. Its human stewards have contributed to its demise through arrogance, greed and dishonesty, reducing a once-great sport to an afterthought and frustrating those of us still in thrall to its history, its characters and the horses who give their all.
California Chrome and his people have reminded us why we can’t walk away. You have to love owners who are so unpretentious that they named their stable “Dumb Ass Partners,’’ a nod to a comment that only someone who fit that description would scrape up $8,000 to buy an undistinguished mare they would breed to a no-name stallion. They aren’t millionaires — though they could have been, had they accepted the $6 million offered for their horse. Trainer Art Sherman, 77, rode with the great champion Swaps in a boxcar from California to the 1955 Kentucky Derby and toiled for 59 years before finding another star in California Chrome.
Unlike Big Brown, who failed to finish the Belmont in 2008 in the most recent bid for a Triple Crown, Chrome is not saddled with a history of steroid use or a trainer with multiple drug violations. He isn’t in the barn of a celebrity megatrainer, like Bob Baffert’s Crown contenders War Emblem, Real Quiet or Silver Charm. He is a gift to those of us who cling to the down-home, old-school charms of racing in a trend-obsessed world.
We’ve been down this road 11 other times since Affirmed’s triumph. Spectacular Bid was beaten in 1979 after stepping on a pin the morning of the Belmont. Real Quiet lost by a nose in 1998. Charismatic broke his leg in the stretch in 1999 and was saved by jockey Chris Antley, who leapt off the horse and held up his damaged limb. Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were simply outrun, but not before becoming equine folk heroes in 2003 and 2004.
During recent years, it’s been debated whether a new Triple Crown champion could revive racing. That is too much to ask. Only the humans who damaged the game can repair it, and they should stop wasting time, for the sake of the horses as well as the sport.
California Chrome has plenty on his plate already, trying to spare racing’s diehards from seeing their hopes buried again in Belmont Park’s vast sandpit of an oval. This time, I’ll be watching on a 40-inch flat-screen, flanked by my Affirmed bobblehead and my Cauthen-autographed print of his Belmont victory.
I love racing enough to weather another disappointment. But that 36-year-old memory is not going to last forever. Go get ’em, Chrome. We’ve all waited much too long.
Rachel Blount is a Star Tribune staff writer. She has covered 15 Triple Crown races and 20 seasons at Canterbury Park.