Monday, May 19, 2014

California Dreamin'...or, Chrome Sweet Chrome

File:California Chrome at 2014 Kentucky Derby.jpg
California Chrome, Kentucky Derby,
courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons
May-June was absolutely excruciating to endure when I was in my early teens.

This had zero to do with things such as school dances or exams and everything to do with the Triple Crown races.

It was the season when my equally horse-mad friend M. and I attached ourselves to one horse for the duration and counted the days til post times for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, and filled the time in between with scouring newspapers for articles about the horses and driving adults crazy with our speculations and frettings.

We couldn't believe our spectacular luck in seeing three Triple Crown winners emerge after a drought of 25 years: first Secretariat in 1973, then Seattle Slew in 1977, and finally Affirmed in 1978.

And now, 36 years later, California Chrome has his chance to sweep the classics, following in the hoofsteps of a dozen horses who've won the first two races, from Spectacular Bid in 1979 to I'll Have Another in 2012.

This horse I have a particular affinity for, because he shares my birthday, February 18. (We have a lot in common, actually: We both have names that start with the letter C. We both have white socks. We both like sugar, carrots, apples, and oats. We're both mammals. OK, that's about all we have in common.)

Secretariat winning Belmont by 31 lengths
I stopped following horse racing after Affirmed's sweep of the Triple Crown, once I was off to college and a career, partly due to lack of time and partly due to the lack of a television set and a newspaper subscription during my college and early working days (remember, kiddies, this was before home computers and the Internet).

Now I am the horse-racing version of the kind of parishioner our fierce pastor at my childhood church condemned, the sort that showed up only on Christmas and Easter: I drop in for the Triple Crown and am largely absent the rest of the year.

It's fun, though, to recall how the sport kept me on tenterhooks in my teens. My parents indulged this fascination as best they could, taking me to the races at Belmont Park now and then and, best of all, to Breakfast at Belmont, which allowed one entry to the track at 6 a.m. to watch horses work out. We'd wander the beautiful grounds of the park, where experts would hold chats in the saddling paddock and by an old starting gate.

And, oh, the swag! Manna from heaven to a horse-crazy girl: a satchel packed with booklets, buttons, and photos of horses, including a supersized paperback about Secretariat that I still have and a comic book about a day in the life of a racehorse.

My father, ever the mathematician, became fascinated with handicapping, so he enjoyed these jaunts, as did my grandfather, an Irish immigrant who had fond memories of seeing horses work out on the Curragh and attending races at Leopardstown outside Dublin. And M. and I wiled away many a summer afternoon drawing horses and inventing racing silks and pedigrees for them.

Next time I'm down at the stable, I'll ask the Resident Ex-Racehorse, Avi, what he thinks of California Chrome's Triple Crown chances. After all, they have a great-grandfather in common (Mr. Prospector), a great-great grandpa (Danzig), and a great-great grandma (Gold Digger). Nothing better than getting insider information straight from the horse's mouth.