COALINGA — There is plenty already to grab hold of with California Chrome, with the rousing victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and whole back story, and plenty have.
The chestnut colt with the four white socks and big white blaze across his face (its chrome, as horsemen call it) has captivated a country that tunes into the sport maybe a handful of times a year with his run at becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. And on Saturday those so inclined can claim a stake for the 2½ minutes -- give or take a few rapid-fire heartbeats -- that it will take to cover the 1½ miles of the Belmont Stakes for the price of a $2 win ticket.
But at Harris Farms, there is no need to reach for a deep connection to the horse -- and just imagine what that must be like now, so tantalizingly close to history.
California Chrome was bred here, was foaled here and spent much of his first year here on the 320 acres in Coalinga, not far from Interstate 5 and surrounded by landscape the color of drought. After nine months growing up in the rich pastures at Harris' River Ranch in Sanger, he returned to start his training before he was sent off to trainer Art Sherman in Southern California to start a racing career that has met some wild expectations.
There are smiles, a lot of them from a staff of 50 full-time employees on the farm, and they only grew wider as the 3-year-old raced down the stretch to win the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May and louder still two weeks later when he captured the Preakness Stakes. Those hands, all of whom had both of them on California Chrome at one point or another as he developed, gathered to watch the races on television in a small break room on the farm.
"You could feel the vibration in the room. It was just amazing. My ears were ringing," said Lisa Torres-Antonsen, an assistant trainer.
Said Dr. Jeanne Bowers-Lepore, the resident veterinarian: "You're teary. You're out of breath. You're screaming your head off. You're not even realizing all the people around you, just the whole emotion, especially in those final few yards before the finish line."
Groom Chuy Horta, who by luck of the draw worked the stall California Chrome settled into when he returned to the training barn, smiled at the memory: "Oh, I almost died," he joked.
Just one of the kids
There is no victory lap -- there really is no time, with as many as 750 horses to care for between the two farms at the peak of the breeding season. And, though miles from the action at Belmont Park and months removed from their daily care in the colt, the connection comes through.
It will leave a mark, which of course works both ways with all of the horses in their care.
"This is like having one of your kids go off and do something special," said David McGlothlin, general manager of the Harris Farms horse division. "It's a validation of everything we do on a daily basis. ... It proves that what we're doing is capable of producing that kind of an individual."
With California Chrome, the staff at Harris Farms was not as bullish early on as his owners. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin had purchased a smallish mare named Love The Chase, with but one win on the race track, for $8,000, a transaction that fostered the name Dumb Ass Partners, and bred her to the unheralded Lucky Pulpit for $2,500, a pittance in a game where stud fees for top stallions go for six figures.
Coburn saw Derby, right from the start. But they all do, and in horse racing dreams disintegrate easily.
McGlothlin said California Chrome was hard to miss, but it was more for his distinctive markings, all of the chrome.
"If there were 10 yearlings in a field, you'd probably look at him and go, 'Look at the one with the four white socks and the blaze.' He had all of the white," he said.
"Even before he got his official name, he was always very flashy. But he was just one of the kids. He wasn't the leader of the pack; he wasn't at the back of the pack."
It was the same thing over at River Ranch.
"They're pretty much, if you compare them to kids, they're in recess all day every day, just hanging out in the pasture," said Laurie Brown, River Ranch manager. "The boys are beating up on each other and the girls are being little jerks to each other, like girls do. Our whole goal is to have them out in the pasture playing around. He just came over and hung out with his buddies."
One thing that stood out was his ability to plop down in his stall and take a nap.
"He'd actually snore," Torres-Antonsen said. "But that's what you want to see with these guys. You want to see them rest and be quiet and content enough that they do rest and just take naps. When one is a little nervous or they're not taking the training well, they'll stand and stay alert.
"Any kind of athlete knows: You need your rest to rebuild. It was really nice to see him just kind of regenerate and rest and relax. He just enjoyed it."
There were other things, many of which have transferred to the race track. He was unflappable. He never got sick, never got injured. He handled everything with aplomb. California Chrome got a poor break in the Santa Anita Derby -- didn't matter. He won by 51/4 lengths. He had to angle out to stake out a clear stalking position in the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, then move early when challenged going into the far turn -- didn't matter. He won by 11/4 lengths.
"It's all so unremarkable that it's remarkable. This guy is just happy," Brown said.
"He loved to train, loved to go out there every day," said Per Antonsen, the farms' trainer. "We did all of the normal things we do here with the young horses, teach them all the basics as far as going outside horses, switching leads, doing all that kind of stuff, and the conditioning so he can handle it when he goes off to the big track. I noticed when he started going to the track, that's when we saw how athletic he was and the nice stride he had on him. We started working him, what we call a little breeze down the lane, and he did that like he had done it before. He was just a natural.
"He was a very nice horse to work with -- never missed a day, did everything right. Everything just came natural to him. That's when I thought there might be something special to him, and he sure turned out to be a special horse."
When California Chrome left Harris Farms for the Sherman barn at Los Alamitos, Antonsen had a message for Coburn and Perry: You'll have some fun with this guy.
"It's awe-inspiring that everything can work out right," Brown said.
It takes a village ...
Now they get one more chance to do it again, in the Belmont, where California Chrome will try to win where I'll Have Another (scratched in 2012), Big Brown (pulled up in 2008), Smarty Jones (second in 2004), Funny Cide (third in 2003), War Emblem (eighth in 2002) and seven other horses to win the Derby and Preakness have failed since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978.
California Chrome was installed on Wednesday as the morning line favorite at 3-5 in a field of 11.
In that small break room on the farm in Coalinga, seats already have been staked out.
"It's something that will be with you the rest of your life. I've worked here for 34 years and had a lot of horses coming through, training a lot of horses. We've had some good ones, but nobody as good as that," Antonsen said. "Everybody here, everybody had a hand in it. It has always been a team effort, for the whole farm, all the people who work with him, all the people who feed him, all the people that give him baths and ride him and do everything. It's a team effort.
"It's very satisfying, that you've done a good job. You feel good about it. You kept that horse sound, healthy. He was taken good care of the whole time. It's easy enough to ruin a horse doing the wrong thing and the horse gets hurt and if he gets hurt maybe he never gets to the race track and he would never be able to show the potential he has. You can feel good about it.
"It's very exciting, very rewarding. It's a neat feeling."
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