, , ,

After California Chrome collected the second jewel of the Triple Crown in authoritative fashion on May 17 at Pimlico, a perplexed observer asked me, “How can a horse with that kind of pedigree be so good?”

Rather than go through a list of top horses with “that sort of pedigree” or something less fashionable, let me just say, “John Henry.” As one of the less-fashionably pedigreed multiple champions, John Henry was both an advertisement for excellence and for the reality of the racetrack. Pedigrees don’t make champions; champions make pedigrees.

And, just like John Henry, California Chrome has combined an emotional story with big wins to become a fan favorite.

On Monday (May 19), I spoke with co-breeder Steve Coburn just before he went on a tour at Gettysburg battlefield, and he said, “California Chrome has a good pedigree, and looking back through the generations there is champion after champion. There is Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Buckpasser, Northern Dancer, and they say that once in a blue moon, some of that old blood will come through. I believe that’s what has given us this wonderful horse.”

The colt’s sire is a stakes-winning son of Pulpit, and this is the eminently classic male line of Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, his Triple Crown-winning sire Seattle Slew, going back to 1957 Preakness winner Bold Ruler and classic sire Nasrullah.

As Coburn summed it up: “The old champions’ blood just showed up again, and we are gonna enjoy the ride.”

And truly they should because a Triple Crown contender comes once in a lifetime. If ever.

For the lucky few, it comes with one of their first horses, and that is the case with Coburn and co-breeder Perry Martin.

Just a few years ago, they and their wives were fractional owners in a racing syndicate that owned the filly Love the Chase, by Not for Love. They bought out the other partners and raced the filly a couple of times on their own before retiring her to be a broodmare.

Love the Chase was bred in Maryland by another set of partners: Tom Bowman and Milton Higgins III. They have been comrades in breeding and racing for decades, and like the majority of dedicated breeders and owners, they have never taken the big ride to the winner’s circle in a Triple Crown race.

They did, however, breed the first two dams of California Chrome, and that gives them a special perspective on the colt’s pedigree and the quality therein.

In a recent interview with Higgins, who is now living in Hawaii, he admitted to being “very committed to using good mares because they are so much of the equation in breeding quality horses.” As Higgins quickly noted, access to top mares is limited, both by scarcity and by economics.

But the partners used a pair of stallions at Northview Stallion Station in Maryland, Not for Love (by Mr. Prospector) and Polish Numbers (Danzig), who both descend from champion Numbered Account. Not for Love is her grandson out of Grade 1 winner Dance Number (Northern Dancer), and Polish Numbers was the next to last foal out of the mare, born when Numbered Account was 18.

Both stallions were stakes-placed, indicating some athletic talent, and were bred by Ogden Phipps, like Numbered Account and her sire Buckpasser, the 1966 Horse of the Year.

For the breeding program of Higgins and Bowman, they “didn’t have the opportunity to inbreed to top mares until Polish Numbers and Not for Love came to Northview Stallion Station,” Higgins noted.

Taking that approach was not a given for them, either. Higgins said, “We really talked about using the 3×3 to Numbered Account because its success wasn’t a given. It works better with peas and corn than it does with animals. But the 04 model that sold for $70,000 [at the 2005 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale] we thought was a really nice colt. That led us to go back to Not for Love, and we got Love the Chase.”

At the racetrack, Love the Chase proved to be only a winner, but that puts her in the top 40 percent of the breed. With a first foal who has won two classics, she has leapt to entirely another level as a broodmare and become a producer of great significance to fans everywhere.

In Higgins’s estimation, the choice of breeding the mare to Lucky Pulpit “set up an outcross that capitalized on the inbred Love the Chase [3×3 to Numbered Account and 3×4 to Northern Dancer] and got the hybrid vigor that resulted in California Chrome, with his only inbreeding being Mr. Prospector 4×3.”

Mating the chestnut Lucky Pulpit with the chestnut Love the Chase produced the bright copper penny on four legs that we know as California Chrome. For the millions of sports fans who are coming to love the glamorous colt, he represents a dream come true, and it’s a dream they can be part of by watching and rooting for the colt to achieve the most elusive triumph in sports.

*The article above was first published last week at Paulick Report.