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Good #12 or Bad #12? Can California Chrome end 36 years of waiting?

There have been 12 horses (11 that actually ran to attempt the bid) fail at winning the Triple Crown after winning the Derby and Preakness since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. Whoever "does the thing" to become #12 in Triple Crown winning lore would end lots of waiting and anxiety. Time to see if California Chrome can be good #12 (Triple Crown winner) or bad #12 (12th to run and lose the Belmont; 13th to not win it overall since I'll Have Another scratched 2 years ago).

Seattle Slew's 1977 Triple Crown trophy
Seattle Slew's 1977 Triple Crown trophy
Washington Times

"Let me tell you something my friend.  Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane."--Red

"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."--Andy Dufresne

Most of this note is a re-post from 2012 right after I'll Have Another scratched from his Belmont.  I updated it to include thoughts on California Chrome and revamp the opening quotes and movie that starts the narrative.

Having seen the 11 past winners of the Triple Crown makes me feel like Andy Dufresne waxing poetic about the concept and ideals of hope.  My experiences, and that of anyone under the age of 40 that follows horse racing, seeing the Triple Crown not being won since 1978 has made me cynical at least on the surface, making me more like Red.  I need to see the winning number posted official of the horse in question that becomes the 12th Triple Crown Winner in order to believe what I'm seeing.

Since 1978 (1979's bid being the first since then), 11 have tried, 11 have came up short.   Now we find out if California Chrome shall be #12 to win all three races or #12 to come up short.   Technically, I suppose I'll Have Another was #12 to fall short, as he didn't even make the starting gate because of a career-ending injury.  On June 10, 1978, Affirmed beat Alydar by a head to become the 11th Triple Crown winner and the 3rd Triple Crown winner in a 6-year span. Nine days later, Garfield was published in comic strips for the first time. I jokingly refer to the drought as the Curse of Garfield. 1978 is also the year of my sister's birth. She hasn't seen one, either. Hopefully, we see one on June 7th. I will now recap the failed bids since then, followed by what I think about California Chrome's bid.

The failed bids since 1978 [note--all of these failed bidders won 3-year-old champion in their years]:

Spectacular Bid (1979)--He was 2 year old champion in 1978, and later an older horse/Horse of the Year champion in 1980. His trainer, Bud Delp, was so confident in him winning the Derby, he was reported as telling racegoers to "Go Bet" on his horse. They'd have won if they listened, as 'Bid' won the Derby and later the Preakness. He stepped on a safety pin the morning of the [Belmont] race, putting his soundness to the test. He ran the race all right in that he was safe throughout the race. But he lost when his jockey was stupidly chasing speed horses, one of them being Golden Act, who ran 2nd. Coastal won the race, with Bid running 3rd. After the race, the jockey was switched to Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker. He never lost a race as a 4-year-old. Probably the best horse to not win the Crown the past 40 years. 0/1 since 1978.

Pleasant Colony (1981)--He won the first two legs from off the pace. On Belmont Day, he broke badly and had to try and win from dead last. He beat everyone...but 2 horses. Summing and Highland Blade beat him that day, though he was well clear of the 4th place horse. 3rd is good for a show bet, but not for the Triple Crown. A good horse, no doubt, but not a great one. 0/2 since 1978.

Alysheba (1987)--Entering the Derby, he only officially won his maiden race, but had crossed the line first more than that before being disqualified. He won the first two legs convincingly, making people think he'd avenge his dad--Alydar--in winning the Crown that Alydar lost to Affirmed. He lost a 3-way photo for 2nd that day, costing him a $1 million bonus for best overall performance in the Triple Crown. Bet Twice beat him soundly by 14 lengths. Later on, Alysheba would win 1988 Horse of the Year as a 4-year-old. The best horse of the past 25 years didn't do it, either. 0/3 since 1978.

Sunday Silence (1989)--This was the year I was born, though I was still in the womb at the running of these races. His rivalry with Easy Goer was akin to Affirmed/Alydar. Only difference being, Easy Goer won the Belmont by 8 lengths. Not only that, he [Easy Goer] ran the fastest "not Secretariat" Belmont ever. But Sunday Silence won the Breeders' Cup (BC') Classic that year, winning Horse of the Year. And was a legend in breeding in Japan. Even bred a Japanese Triple Crown winner that accomplished the feat in Japan unbeaten in 2005 (Deep Impact). But he had the misfortune of being as old as Easy Goer. 0/4 since 1978.

Silver Charm (1997)--The first Triple Crown bid of my lifetime. He won the first two in gutsy fashion. Had a good guy connection line. Owners were the Lewises, trainer was Bob Baffert--he just lost the '96 Derby by a nose, and Gary Stevens won 2 Derbies and a Belmont before. In 1998, he almost became the 3rd Dual Classic winner to win the BC' Classic. Watched at home with family that day. He lost to Touch Gold, a horse that just lost the Preakness (4th, beaten less than 2 lengths) after an awful trip. I joked that Silver Charm got too busy combing his mane for the winner's photo to win the race, but I know better that he was lucky to have the chance at the bid looking at Touch Gold's Preakness in retrospect. 0/5 since 1978.

Real Quiet (1998)--The unlikeliest of bidders. He was the #2 in the Baffert barn that year to Indian Charlie. Jockey was Kent Desormeaux, his 1st of 3 Derbies (and 1st of 2 Triple Crown tries). My late uncle picked him to win that year. We all wanted him to do it in 1998; I watched the Belmont at home and saw him at the Derby in person. He had a clear lead at the top of the stretch in the Belmont. Then Victory Gallop ran him down to win a "$5 Million photo" by a nose. Crushing. I cried for about 20 minutes after that. Really hated Victory Gallop for that, especially since he beat Favorite Trick, the winter-book Derby favorite that year in his Derby prep. Not VG's fault; Real Quiet was a horse that sold for under $20K in the auction ring. That he was less than a foot from being a Triple Crown winner shows that he wins the 'bang for the buck' award of the failed bidders. 0/6 since 1978.

Charismatic (1999)--My dad had him in the Derby (we were at that Derby) and Preakness. Same owners as Silver Charm, trained by D. Wayne Lukas--a legend, ridden by Chris Antley who was the Josh Hamilton of jockeys. Immense talent and past demons about to be redeemed by Charismatic. My dad and I watched at River Downs in Cincinnati. Then he fell short in the Belmont, running 3rd to Lemon Drop Kid (eventual 2000 Older Horse Champ) and Vision and Verse. Also got hurt in the Belmont, but lived to tell the tale and become a stallion and the 1999 Horse of the Year. This hurt worse than Real Quiet in many ways, as at least Real Quiet wasn't injured in the race. 0/7 since 1978.

War Emblem (2002)--Impressive winner of the first two legs that used his speed to win them both (gate-to-wire Derby, sat 2nd before overtaking in Preakness). Entered the Belmont as live as any of them with raw speed and talent; watched it at home. But he lost the race at the start, stumbling before rushing up to fade to 8th place. A bomb, Sarava, won the race at 70-1 odds. Medaglia d'Oro, a game horse that was an underachiever at that point, later won millions of dollars and sired (was the daddy of) Rachel Alexandra. Medaglia d'Oro was 2nd that year. This one hurt the least, as War Emblem got through the race healthy, even if soundly beaten. He also didn't get my hopes up as much as the other 3 did. 0/8 since 1978.

Funny Cide (2003)--He was a plucky underdog that won the first two jewels of the Crown. Also a gelding, meaning that he wouldn't retire immediately because of the money involved in breeding. Won by a ton in the Preakness, but he left it out on the track before the Belmont. Watched at home. That, and the 57 second workout at 5/8 of a mile the week of the race, sapped his energy. Two fresh horses, Empire Maker (Derby favorite) and Ten Most Wanted (Travers winner), beat him. My dad kept saying "he's [Funny Cide] going to lose" and he was right. I didn't react well to that, and I later saw "Bruce Almighty" at the theater that day. Showed that no matter the intention, can't get what you want from prayer all the time, and sometimes it's for the best, even if it hurts short-run. 0/9 since 1978.

Smarty Jones (2004)--The horse that towered over the rest of his fellow 3-year-olds. Ran through the races unbeaten headed to the Belmont Stakes. Won the Preakness by about 10 lengths. Which is like winning Game 6 of a 7 game series by 30 points. I thought he'd do it that year. Watched the race at Hoosier Park just north of Indianapolis that year. Had a lead in the stretch, but got ran down by Birdstone. Birdstone later won the Travers and he was a 2-year-old that failed to click at 3 before that day. Smarty Jones was subjected to a faster middle half-mile in the Belmont than Secretariat was (:48 for Secretariat; :46.79 for Smarty Jones). That eventually did him in that day. Crushed me to no end; I later threw up that night from eating too much and being emotionally down from the loss. 0/10 since 1978.

Big Brown (2008)--The horse that had no rival but himself going into the Belmont Stakes. He was a perfect 5/5 in his career entering the race. His main rival, Casino Drive, scratched the week of the race. It was an inside speed track and Big Brown had the #1 post. Seemed too good to be true. Well, it was. He ran last, not finishing the race that day. His owner and trainer were humbled for exaltation that day. A random 38-1 bomb, Da' Tara, won that day and Da' Tara never won another race. Big Brown won his 2 starts post-Derby, but retired too soon to foot problems, the same foot problems that plagued him in the Belmont. Watched it at Keeneland in disbelief at such an epic fail attempt. But at least he erased the doubt before the final 1/4 mile, unlike 1997-99 and 2004 did. 0/11 since 1978.

I'll Have Another (2012)--The whole controversy with the Doug O'Neill 45-day suspension and Paul Reddam--his owner--gaining a reputation as a loan shark for running CashCall, a high-risk loan company, didn't help, media-wise. He gave us a good ride, going 4/4 in 2012. His Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins were sublime. Joined a group of three (Burgoo King, Bold Venture, and now I'll Have Another) who got hurt and withdrew from the Belmont Stakes. It was the right decision, but ouch for the dashed hopes...again. Not sure what God wants out of a Triple Crown winner. Were this Doctor Who, I'd get the T.A.R.D.I.S. ready to see Secretariat's run just to know what it's like to see someone do it. Sure, I've seen a Canadian (Wando-2003) and Japanese (Deep Impact-2005) Triple Crown winner.  But it's not the same.

His mother had injury problems that made her retire early; her son suffered the same ending. It's like how Bulls fans felt after Derrick Rose went down with an ACL injury in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. It looked like they might end the post-Jordan drought, compared to I'll Have Another ending the Triple Crown drought. But both fell short to injury; at least Rose has another chance (or more). And there could be a Triple Crown winner sometime before I die; I'm only 24, after all. My dad was around my age for Secretariat's run. Who knows? But it doesn't end the world that it happened that way. Better that than a catastrophic injury on the scale of Charismatic, Barbaro, or Eight Belles.

California Chrome (2014)--When I got promoted from 8th grade, Smarty Jones had a chance to be Twelve (which makes him sound like the Doctor by comparison; even more ironic considering we're about to reveal Twelve and his first full episodes on Doctor Who later this year--foreshadowing, perhaps?).  When I graduated high school, Big Brown had a shot to be Twelve.  When I graduated from undergrad at U of L, I'll Have Another was the talk of a Triple Crown bid to be Twelve. Now that I've actually substitute taught for three months and am seeking employment on the full-time teaching front, California Chrome is trying to break that drought that I sometimes call the Curse of Garfield.  The lifetime achievements and horses getting my hopes up in the Triple Crown seem to be intertwined, don't they?

On to Chrome's accomplishments running around the track.  He's looked up to the task and then some in his recent history.  He hasn't lost since Breeders' Cup weekend last year at Santa Anita.  Six race win streak to the good certainly helps.  He ran without having to "reach the bottom" of his potential in both the Derby and Preakness. Although Commanding Curve (Derby) and Ride on Curlin (Preakness) appeared to be closing in on him late in the running of the first two races of the Triple Crown, he was geared down and not asked for a full out effort in either race the last sixteenth of a mile.  He's also proven that he doesn't need the lead to win a race in both victorious efforts.  However, his San Felipe win proved he can make it to the lead should no one want it.  I highly doubt they'll let him get the lead to himself in the Belmont.  It's more likely people try to make him pull a Smarty Jones and force him to tire out before the final quarter mile.  I think he's more wise to adapting to pace than Smarty Jones was, though. He chased targets in his last three races successfully, even when the paces were not exceptionally fast.  I seriously doubt they'll go out guns blazing in the Belmont in the first 6-8 furlongs of the race.  If anything, it might help him.

Win or lose, it will be a roller coaster ride with several peaks and valleys.  I just hope they don't shut down the ride or close it for repairs like what happened with I'll Have Another two years ago.  Or have it marred by an injury like Charismatic's run 15 years ago.  Just end this thing, California Chrome.  I'm tired of being teased with false hope, as I've seen 8 times and my older sister has seen 10 times.  On his day, he's good enough to do it.  Then again, some all time greats like Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence fell short at the last hurdle.  Others like Point Given, Afleet Alex, Native Dancer, and Damascus didn't even win the Derby to have a shot.  He'll have to be special to get it done June 7th.  Let's hope that he is.  We've only waited 36 years since another chestnut colt got the job done in New York.  To quote Rafiki at the end of The Lion King, "It is time."  And no, if it doesn't happen on June 7th, I won't blame Garfield.  At least not after the first day or so in jest.