As California Chrome tries to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, the three-year-old thoroughbred is already carrying plenty of California horse racing history on his back.
The horse has become famous for bucking the establishment by being bred in California from very modestly priced parents and being owned by people who've chosen to call themselves "Dumbass Partners." His success, meanwhile, comes at a pivotal moment for the horse-racing industry in Southern California.
Saturday's Belmont Stakes is the culmination of an historic winning streak that California Chrome started the day horse-racing ended at Hollywood Park. On December 22nd, he won the last stakes race at the 75-year-old race track in Inglewood.
"I’ve had a lot of ups and downs here, but this is where I started," said California Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza that day. "When I moved to California, this is where I won my first race."
California Chrome had stabled and trained at Hollywood Park. His trainer, Art Sherman had also started there as a kid. But with Hollywood Park closing, the two, along with hundreds of other race horses and their trainers, had to find new homes. Sherman chose Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County and knew that others would take notice.
"When you’re at a track that’s starting to get started and they know I trained here for all the races, it means a lot for the industry to know that the track is a safe track to train on," Sherman told KPCC. "Everybody wants to come over here now."
Los Alamitos Race Course has been known as a leading venue for quarter horse racing, but not as a place where thoroughbred horses train or compete. Its 5/8-of-a-mile track was too short for horses like California Chrome to train for races of a full mile or more. But with Hollywood Park closing, California horse-racing was short both a training and stabling facility and a venue for thoroughbred racing on par with tracks at Santa Anita and Del Mar.
Los Alamitos decided to step into the breach. It completed a new mile-long track in January, is building 200 new horse stalls, expanding its winner’s circle and upgrading restrooms — all at a cost of $3 million and counting. The racetrack’s first high-level thoroughbred meet starts on July 3rd, the result of taking on about five weeks of racing that used to happen at Hollywood Park.
"So to have a superstar like California Chrome here and for us to be associated with that, from recognition and publicity, and just awareness of what’s happening here, I mean, we couldn’t have paid for that," says Orlando Gutierrez, spokesman for Los Alamitos.
Gutierrez is hoping that California Chrome will at least parade around at Los Alamitos during that first meet, though the horse has also been invited to race if his owners think he can by then. In the meantime, on Belmont Stakes Day, the first 3,500 attendees at Los Alamitos will get a commemorative ticket and “Love Chrome” button, a special California Chrome drink will be served at the track's Vessels Club and “Home of the Chrome” items will be on sale at the gift shop.
Gutierrez is happy to see “the Chrome” drive crowds back to the track especially now that anyone who wants to bet on horse races can do so online or over the phone.
"They don’t have to come to the racetrack itself, so our attendance is not as high," Gutierrez said. "It doesn’t mean that we’re not a popular sport still. Betting handle on horse racing is as high as it has ever been, but attendance is not, so that’s kind of the difference."
Alan Balch, executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers group, says the betting has been huge on California Chrome, and he expects that to continue through the Belmont Stakes. He says racetracks don’t have a stake in which horse wins, but having a horse that boosts attendance — a so-called box office horse like California Chrome — helps.
"When you get a box office horse, of course it makes a difference, because if there are more people betting, the track doesn’t really care who wins, as long as the total handle – the total amount bet — goes up," Balch said. "Interestingly, if he should win the Triple Crown, a lot of those tickets won’t be cashed. They’ll be kept as souvenirs."
Balch is also a former vice president of marketing and assistant general manager at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. He worked there when California-trained Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, ridden by jockey Steve Cauthen.
"He [Cauthen] appeared in commercials for us. He did all kinds of things for us," Balch said. "It was a red-letter time during a red-letter year."
California Chrome won three big races at Santa Anita before beginning his Triple Crown chase, and Santa Anita has benefitted in box office and in betting. This is the first year Santa Anita has run live races during Triple Crown season — another result of the closure of Hollywood Park. Santa Anita officials say on Preakness Day this year, more than 21,000 people came to the racetrack, compared to under 7,000 at Hollywood Park on last year's Preakness Day. Santa Anita’s total Preakness Day handle was about $17.4 million compared to just over $14 million last year at Hollywood Park.
"We’re all hoping to ride his coattails, and that those coattails would have legs," said Mike Willman, director of publicity for Santa Anita Park.
Willman says his racetrack will also ask California Chrome to parade around, but if he wins the Triple Crown, the horse could turn up in some unlikely places.
"You hate to get ahead of things, but the Dodgers and the Angels already have pitches in to parade California Chrome in their respective outfields," Willman told KPCC. "So you can imagine, it’s big."