This Saturday will be here before you know it, and with it comes the 140th Kentucky Derby! As you prepare to place your bets on some of the fastest horses in the world, consider what our guest blogger, James C. Nicholson (author of Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby), says below about California Chrome.
Each year, on the first Saturday in May, Kentucky takes center stage in the American sports world as the nation’s top three-year-old horses compete in the “Run for the Roses.” For over a century, Kentucky, along with its history, mythology and associated imagery, has been part of the spectacle that captures the imaginations of the scores of thousands who witness the Derby at Churchill Downs and the millions who watch on television. This year, as sports journalists struggle in their annual attempt to assign personalities and backstories to the various equine contestants at the Derby, Kentucky will find itself sharing the spotlight.
California Chrome, the early favorite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, is a California horse. The Derby will be the colt’s first race outside of southern California. He was born in California, the result of the mating of an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, where the majority of American equine bluebloods hail from Kentucky, to be a California-bred is to come from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.
California Chrome’s seventy-seven-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, is also a Californian. He began a lifetime in horse racing as an exercise rider on the California circuit in the 1950s, and in1955 he accompanied Swaps, one of the horses he galloped, on a four-day train trip from Los Angeles to Louisville. The journey proved to be worth the effort, as Swaps became only the second Cal-bred to win the Run for the Roses.
Many of the story lines that journalists will attach to California Chrome will be predictable. His septuagenarian trainer has paid his dues in the sport of horse racing but has never won a Derby. Sherman’s connection to one of the greatest Derby champions of the twentieth century will only add to his “good guy” appeal. Chrome’s owners – one is an engineer in California, the other installs magnetic strips onto credit cards in Nevada – will be portrayed as “regular guys,” appropriately matched with their under-pedigreed horse. The fact that they reportedly turned down an offer of $6 million for a ½ interest in California Chrome will no doubt become a part of any number of newspaper columns during Derby week. The colt’s California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza, won the Kentucky Derby in 2002, but has fallen off in recent years. A Derby victory could jumpstart his career. Each of these story angles has become well-trodden ground in the past two decades at the Kentucky Derby: the elderly, dues-paying trainer; the blue-collar horse with blue-collar owners; and the past-his-prime jockey. But the fresh spin this year will be the tie that binds this cast of characters – California.
Because horses cannot speak, sportswriters have great leeway in the creation of storylines for the Derby, and the narratives that reporters gravitate toward at Churchill Downs during Derby week tell us much about the pervasive values and tastes of a given era. Over the past two decades, the most popular story lines have been those that purport to confirm the notion that anyone can succeed in America and that hard work and patience are, in the end, rewarded.
If California Chrome prevails on Derby Day, those angles will almost certainly be included in race descriptions in newspapers across the country. But the idea that California Chrome is a California horse will also be a major part of journalistic coverage, which should serve as a reminder of the central role that geography has played in the popularity of the Derby itself for well over a century.
A big thanks to James C. Nicholson for guest blogging! Be sure to catch the Derby this Saturday evening, and be sure to read Never Say Die and The Kentucky Derby if you want to know more about the tradition of horse racing!