Leave it to the horse to always bring us back.
After a week of PETA video rehash and grumbling over seats and wager gouging and the cold greed of the corporation that runs Churchill Downs, the right horse won for everybody on Saturday.
The sport couldn’t have asked for a more redemptive winner than California Chrome, trained by a 77-year-old who rode the rails with Swaps in 1955 and owned by two guys with the chutzpah to name their one-horse stable Dumb-Ass Partners.
That was their horse, with the purple silks and “DAP” printed right on the forehead of the chestnut colt’s blinkers, who just won the 140th Kentucky Derby by 13⁄4 lengths. For the next two weeks, at least, he will be everybody’s horse.
California Chrome trained in the hinterlands, Los Alamitos, assembled much of his resume against statebreds and came out of an unremarkable mare who was bought by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin for a whopping $8,000.
That was $8,000 more than anybody other than a dumb-ass should’ve paid for her, according to a groom at her barn.
They laughed it off and embraced the concept, then put her son in the care of Art Sherman, who was a stablehand accompanying a groom and Swaps on the train that took him from California to the 1955 Kentucky Derby victory with Bill Shoemaker aboard.
Upon arriving in Louisville, California Chrome endeared himself to everybody with his good looks, wide white blaze and by hamming it up for the photographers in the mornings.
“Neither has a mean bone in his body,” Sherman said in an online diary this week, when asked to compare Swaps and Chrome. “They are as gentle as can be until it’s show time. Then they are the gutsiest horses you can find.”
It was a refreshing victory after Churchill Downs Incorporated took hit after hit in the run-up to the Derby.
The Week That Was for CDI leading up to the big race was a seemingly endless stream of simmering anger from fans and horsemen, bad publicity and apologies.
It started with the takeout hike CDI implemented on opening day last Saturday, leading to a call for a betting boycott on Churchill Downs and the other tracks CDI owns by the fan advocacy group Horseplayers Association of North America.
Then owner Rick Porter fired a salvo on Monday, writing a post on the website for his Fox Hills Farm expressing his frustration and fury over not being given seats for Friday’s Alysheba, a $300,000 Grade II race in which he had entered Normandy Invasion.
Perhaps it’s easy to not have sympathy for a horse owner who can afford to buy the likes of Havre de Grace and Normandy Invasion, but Porter’s was another voice complaining about CDI and its treatment of people.
Next up? Ron Turcotte, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown. On Wednesday, he issued a statement blasting CDI for not providing him with handicapped-accessible parking at the track.
Partially paralyzed since a riding accident in 1978, the beloved Turcotte was supposed to appear at meet-and-greets at the Kentucky Derby Museum grounds Friday and Saturday.
“I have held my tongue about the way CDowns treats horseman in lead up to Ky Derby but letter from Ron Turcotte is believable and deplorable,” tweeted trainer Graham Motion, one of the most gracious and congenial people in the sport.
Yikes. You have to really be trying, to get Graham Motion riled up.
On Thursday, everything apparently was smoothed over, and Churchill spokesman John Asher publicly apologized to Turcotte.
By then, CDI had been granted a one-year conditional license to race at one of its tracks, Fair Grounds. Seems the good people at the Louisiana State Racing Commission aren’t convinced that CDI gives more than a blade of hay about racing there, as long as their slot machines keep chugging along.
Thanks to California Chrome, it was finally time to push all of this to the side on Saturday.
With two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan’s adventurous win in the Woodford Reserve Classic as a fitting prelude, California Chrome sparkled in the sunlight and reminded us all that what happens on the track is what really counts.