California Chrome turns breeding on its ear

Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

IT'S THE EARS. It's gotta be the ears.

You're looking for answers to the riddle of California Chrome, how this humbly bred colt, with its geezer trainer and its loud co-owner and its 42-year-old jockey, wearing the ugliest silks in recent memory, has a chance to make horse racing history, go ahead, start with the ears.

Chrome will be odds-on on June 7, in the Belmont. His breeding screams that he can't go a mile-and-a-half against rested rivals. The colt has half-a-ton of skills. Reading his daunting pedigree isn't one of them.

If he wins the Belmont with that silhouette of a jackass on his jockey's back, he will do something that hasn't been done in 36 years, not since Affirmed, win racing's Triple Crown.

His co-owners have caught more than lightning in a bottle. They've caught thunder, a tsunami, hailstones and halibut bones. Chrome's momma is Love the Chase, whose only win was in a maiden claiming race at Golden Gate. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin bought the slow but sincere filly for $8,000. That earned the new owners the harsh nickname, "Dumb Ass Partners." Hence the D-A-P on the blinkers and the donkey on the silks.

Chrome's daddy is Lucky Pulpit, who hasn't sired anything that has won beyond 1-1/16 miles. Stud fee was $2,000 at the time, a bargain-basement price tag. Date took place on a sun-scorched horse farm, 18 miles from nowhere. The foal showed up with four white feet. (More about this later.) They drew his name out of a hat, so we're lucky he's not Stetson 7 1/2.

Coburn started talking Kentucky Derby that day. He is the loud partner and he wears purple shirts and green ties and a cowboy hat that's gotta hold 12 gallons if it holds an ounce. In racing, you bray about the Derby around a new foal and you might as well spit into the wind. (More about this later.)

It is an intoxicating story, this bubbly brew of science and superstition. Dick Jerardi, as he always does, has brought Daily News readers the human side, the old-school trainer, Art Sherman; the loud Coburn; the friendly jockey Victor Espinoza.

The breeding fascinates, puzzles, and a search for answers led to Laurie Ross, a sweet, smart woman who has studied pedigrees for over a decade. She has been Horse Racing Nation's pedigree analyst since 2010.

Just for the record, she thought Chrome would "hit the wall" in the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby. He won easy, did it again in the Preakness at 1-to-2.

"When I look at a pedigree to determine how far a horse may want to run," she said, "I take into account the sire's racing record and winning distances of his progeny. With a new stallion, I look at his sire, dam, damsire and siblings for distance/precocious factors. I do the same with the dam, her siblings and offspring.

"It isn't an exact science. About eight of 10 times the horse will follow the dictates of his pedigree/conformation. Occasionally, one, like California Chrome, will outrun their pedigree.

"Sometimes the large heart factor comes into play. Other times, they could be a throwback, where all of the genes line up in a way that they didn't with the rest of the family."

She is talking large heart as in size, dimensions, not those mystical intangibles sports writers scramble for: determination, courage, toughness. Big heart handles the oxygen more efficiently, bolsters speed and stamina. And that's before we knew about the nasal strips on Chrome's nose.

Short of an ECG, how can we even guess that Chrome might be powered by a large heart? "The easiest way," Ross answered, "is to look at his ears. One unique characteristic is curly ear tips. Look at Secretariat's ears. Another noted for her curly ears is Zenyatta. Last year's Derby winner, Orb, also has the ears. California Chrome's ears look very much like Secretariat's."

Go back too far studying a pedigree and the gene pool is diluted, confusing. "California Chrome's dam has an interesting inbreeding to a mare named Numbered Account," she said. "This mare was a champion 2-year-old filly in 1971. Set a track record for 5 furlongs, equaled one at 9 furlongs.

"Numbered Account is by the great Buckpasser. Her dam was by Swaps. She can also be found in the third and fourth generations. If you have good genes from a superior mare, you want to breed in more of the traits she offers."

Inbred 3 x 3 to Numbered Account, nice! Big heart, curly ear tips, efficient stride, another gear once they turn for home, those four white feet churning. Even nicer!! Ah, the four white feet. Ross was not familiar with the childlike rhyme I'd heard around the racetrack: one white foot, buy him; 2 white feet, try him; 3 white feet, be on the sly; 4 white feet, pass him by.

"The only issue with white hooves, not legs," she cautioned, "is that since they lack pigment, they tend to be softer than a black hoof. This opens up a host of problems such as cracks and other injuries."

Whoa! Fifteen seconds later, I had a different rhyme, thanks to Yahoo. One white foot, keep him not a day; 2 white feet, send him far away; 3 white feet, sell him to a friend; 4 white feet, keep him to the end.

The last word goes to Archie Moore, the legendary fighter. Someone asked Moore about the chances of a plodding fighter winning a title. Moore answered, "You can't win the Kentucky Derby with a blue-nosed mule."

Moore was thinking about quick hands, quick feet, a quick mind. That's prize fighting. The Belmont is a horse race. It only looks like a prize fight some years. Bet with your head, not over it.



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