California Chrome's run at history has hometown breathless
BY DIANA MARCUM
John Harris owns an agricultural empire of beef and pistachios, and a hotel known to most Californians who have ever traveled Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, but on a recent day his attention was fixed on a message spelled out in red Solo cups.
The sixth-graders at Centerville Elementary had put 150 of them in a chain-link fence to write "Go Cali Chrome."
"I get a real kick out of that," said Harris, who owns the horse farm where California Chrome was born.
Students in Centerville come to school in cowboy boots with shorts — the children of fieldworkers and farmers. They blasted country-rocker Kenny Chesney while they transformed the school fence.
They're into the blue-blood sport of thoroughbred racing these days, ever since they figured out that California Chrome — racing Saturday in the Belmont Stakes in a bid to become the first California-bred Triple Crown winner — comes from where they call home.
The copper-penny 3-year-old with the white blaze down his nose was born at Harris Farms in Coalinga. A landscape of cattle, oil wells and the center of California drought, it's an awful long way from Kentucky bluegrass.
As a yearling, California Chrome trained at Harris' home, River Ranch, next to Centerville, population about 350.
The far-fetched story of a horse from a place a lot of people call nowhere — outrunning what the establishment considered a limited pedigree — resonates in the Central Valley, where many people are trying to do the same.
"That horse was born, bred and fed here," said John Alkire, chief executive of the Big Fresno Fair. "But it's more than that. We're blue-collar. And this horse fits right in."
The day California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby, David White, a sportswriter turned Porterville pastor, was officiating a wedding. The wedding started at 6 p.m., the race at 3:24.
"It was all valley people and the whole wedding party crowds into the hotel lobby — including the bride and groom — to watch the race," he said. "Everyone is just screaming. I'm going ballistic. We watched our horse make history."
Luck of the draw
California Chrome was born on an increasingly rare rainy day in the Central Valley.
His mother, Love the Chase, was hurt during the birth. The crew caring for the mare gave the foal a lot of attention.
"Of course we had to give smooches to the baby. I think he's so relaxed because he's been touched and loved-on so much," said Debbie Sue Winick, Harris Farms' race manager.
It was the owners' first try at breeding horses. They're an odd pairing — Perry Martin, who avoids fanfare, and Steve Coburn, a man always sporting a cowboy hat and who is quick to joke, cry and give a folksy soundbite.
Martin and Coburn bought Love the Chase, who had won only one race, for $8,000. For $2,500 they bred her with Lucky Pulpit, who had never won a race of more than five furlongs.
A groom told the two men only a "dumb ass" would buy the filly to breed a racehorse. They named their partnership DAP and put a mule on their purple and green silks.
They have a 77-year-old trainer who thought his big-time days were over, and a jockey who grew up afraid of horses.
They pulled California Chrome's name out of Coburn's cowboy hat. If not for the luck of the draw, the horse could have been named Seabisquick.
Central Valley rally
A flashing sign in Coalinga bids California Chrome to bring home the Triple Crown. There are so many green and purple T-shirts in Fresno that it looks like Mardi Gras.
"Folks want to tell you everything they know about California Chrome. It's all anyone wants to talk about," Harris said. "Board meetings, political fundraisers -- "
"My sewing class!" said Laurie Brown, the River Ranch manager.
Harris, 70, has been breeding race horses for half a century. He was reading racing forms at age 10.
"I can remember a horse's pedigree from 50 years ago when I can't remember a guy I met at a party last night," Harris said.
But he had never stepped into the Derby winner's circle until this year, with California Chrome.
Recently, on Harris' daily visit to the yearlings, a mare acting as housemother was calming a group of fillies — including a Chrome look-alike that is one of his two full sisters. Across a shady lane, a colt reared. Suddenly the whole group was galloping in a wide arc.
Sometimes the horses bite and kick. The staff has the most contact with horses that get hurt.
"We never had California Chrome in the barn. What does that tell you?" Brown asked. "Chrome was kind of a laid-back dude and he was too fast for the others to catch him."
The only reason Chrome stands out in memory as a yearling was his owners.
Both couples came often. The Coburns always showed up with a big bag of horse cookies. Carolyn Coburn, who grew up outside of Bakersfield, would shake the plastic bag — a sound that would send most yearlings bolting. Chrome would run straight for his treat.
"That's what separates California Chrome," Harris said. "He's not a stress cadet."
The drought has heightened political tensions in the Central Valley. Harris is a key figure in a fight for water that pits farmers against farmers and environmental protections against crop irrigation. But a Triple Crown hopeful transcends even water wars.
"Society might not agree on anything," Harris said. "But everybody agrees they want to watch this horse of humble beginnings run."
Fest will grind to a halt
The Kern County Nut Festival ("A Shell of a Good Time") is Saturday, as is the Belmont.
Robert Price, editor of the Bakersfield Californian, warned organizers they should get word out that at 3:30 p.m. everything would come to a halt, "or people might skip the festival to make themselves available to a TV set."
A crowd of 1,000 is expected at the Fresno fairgrounds for satellite wagering. It's hard to find a sports bar from Tulare to Turlock that doesn't have a waiting list.
Winick will probably watch it in the little office behind the barn at the Coalinga ranch.
It's where she watched the Kentucky Derby with the stable grooms, the exercise riders and the vets who all helped raise Chrome.
She grew up around racetracks. Her father and her grandfather worked the horses. She became a trainer.
More than a year ago, she took a bad fall back East while exercising a horse. She decided to make a fresh start in California at Harris Farms. One of the first things she saw was Chrome race at Santa Anita.
"I just knew there was something there," she said. "You can get complacent and forget what you're looking for … and suddenly, there it is."
Last month, a video of the Harris Farms crew watching the Derby in their office went viral. The younger workers grin, lean, bounce and nervously giggle. Winick watches with the concentration of someone who has seen a lot of races lost that she expected to be won. Then, in the home stretch, she screams, cries and jumps with everyone else.
Two weeks later, California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes. If he wins on Saturday in New York, he'll be the first horse in 36 years to win all three races.
Win or lose, there will be California Chrome day at the county's Big Fresno Fair in October, and the city of Fresno plans to give the horse a key to the city.
Maybe there is more to follow. At the Coalinga farm, Winick called out, "Chase, come here Chasey."
Up ran a mare and her foal — Chrome's full sister — copper-colored with a white racing stripe on her forehead. The 4-month-old let Winick kiss her on the head and tried to eat a reporter's notebook.
"She thinks she's a rock star," Winick said. "Her brother already proved a good horse can come from right here."