It’s called "the Sport of Kings" for the wrong reason. Thoroughbred racing is not about the regal lineage of its patrons, but rather about the magnificence of its participants.
Should California Chrome win the 146th Belmont Saturday and end the 36-year quest for another Triple Crown champion, the true winner won’t be jockey Victor Espinoza or trainer Art Sherman or owners Perry Martin and Steven Coburn, or even the 3-year-old colt with the white stockings. It’ll be the horse in general—the athlete that California Chrome represents.
Because we bet on horses, and because those bets turn into revenue for the tracks and the states, we have turned these creatures into a commodity that seems beneath their intelligence and grace and heart. Too many ordinary races, too many disposable entrants. Have you ever been to Aqueduct in January?
Every once in a while, a horse comes along to capture our imagination: Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Affirmed. But we haven’t had one of those heroes in years, and it’s not a coincidence that the dry spell has happened during the sport’s downturn. They fed off one another, in fact, as people lost interest in horse racing, and horse racing people went after the quick buck. Nothing says desperation like the 19 horses that went off in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Fortunately, one of them was California Chrome, who came with a great back story: A jockey who had lost a chance at a Triple Crown once before, a trainer who used to be an exercise rider for the great swaps, two owners who knew a bargain when they saw one and California Chrome himself, who had the resilience to overwhelm the field in the Preakness two weeks later.
Now he faces one more test—against 36 years, 10 other horses and 1 and a half miles of pressure. If he wins, he’ll not only elevate the sport, but also the thousands of other thoroughbreds who race in obscurity. We’ll suddenly see them as the incredible athletes that they are.
If not, well, nothing against Medal Count, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Ride On Curlin, Matuszak, Samraat, Commissioner, Wicked Strong, General A Rod and Tonalist...but nobody loves a spoilsport.
William Tanger is a writer based in New York.