California Chrome: A Fluke in Breeding?

January 13, 2015

Dylan and California Chrome

Do you think Perry Martin, and Steve Coburn, aka Dumbass Partners and owners and breeders of California Chrome, would have bred their mare, Love the Chase, to Lucky Pulpit had he been standing in Kentucky, Florida, New York, or anywhere other than down the road from their farm in California? How about if he was in some obscure place like Korea, or Turkey? If your answer to that question is yes, you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this article.

In addition to providing a voice in racing, or any subject for that matter, to anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone, social media has also expanded the voices of some so called pundits, which at times can be a very revealing thing. Maybe some of these pundits are not really pundits after all. While some things are subjective, and matters of opinion, some are not, and there are indeed cases where an opinion is outright wrong.

Before we look at the case in point, let me state for the record, this article is in no way reflective of the horse’s accomplishments, nor that of his owner/breeders. They’ve bred a wonderful, talented, and exciting racehorse. He had quite the three year old season, even if the mating was the result of totally blind luck, akin to catching lightning in a bottle.

It’s amusing how many breeding experts there are when a horse of modest bloodlines gets good or starts winning major stakes. You’ll hear them almost every time. They will almost always tell you something like this, “You know, if you go back a few generations, you will see some really good and champion horses.” They offer this as validation that this horse is actually well-bred, and that they, and not you, were smart enough to spot it. Well it is only fair to give credit where credit is due. They are in part correct, you do see some really strong names when you go back in a five cross of a thoroughbred. You can find them in almost any racehorse you choose. Take a modestly bred 5k claimer and do a five cross and tell me some of the names you see. Are all these horses well bred? The answer is no.

The reason all these horses are not well bred is in part the result of inbreeding. This is why you see so many of the same names as you go back through the lineage of most thoroughbreds. In horse racing, inbreeding is when you see the same ancestor appear two or more times within the first five generations. This has always been prevalent in horse racing but has actually increased over the past forty years. Over the past fifteen years it has increased at a greater rate than even before. At the turn of the 18th Century the mating of 21 horses resulted in most of the racehorses we see running today. That accounts for about 80% of the genetic makeup of today’s racehorses.

California Chrome is a modestly bred race horse by any stretch of the imagination. Sure he is a Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year candidate, but that does not mean he is well bred, nor that his breeding was the result of some well thought out master plan. To suggest his mating was a strategically planned event to result in a major stakes winner is simply wrong. It isn’t subjective, nor a matter of opinion, it is just wrong and anyone with an even average knowledge of bloodlines should be able to clearly recognize this. This is why I found a recent article by a so called pundit surprising, and their comments in support of that article nothing short of preposterous.

An article surfaced recently discussing possible slights by Eclipse voters in not making California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman an Eclipse finalist and also his breeders, Martin Perry and Steve Coburn finalists as well. Now Mr. Sherman’s lack of nomination as trainer is indeed a matter of opinion and subjective. Perry and Coburn as breeders are not. I somewhat agree on Art Sherman; however, it is difficult to get away from the fact the body of his work involved one horse. It’s tough to compare that to trainers who have done their work with numerous horses, even if the one horse guy won The Kentucky Derby. As for the Dumb Ass Partners, they lucked out and won the lottery. That gets many accolades and perks, an Eclipse Award should not be one of them. When I politely pointed that out to this so called pundit it was insinuated I knew nothing of breeding, and less of the careful planning that went into this mating. I beg to differ.

If California Chrome is so modestly bred, how is he so good? The simple answer is, he is a fluke. Not the first, and certainly not the last. He outruns his pedigree but it is likely it will catch up to him at some point, perhaps in the breeding shed. It certainly didn’t help him in the last 1/8th of a mile of The Belmont Stakes. Many of you will remember the dosage index theory in identifying Kentucky Derby contenders. It was almost foolproof for a long time. If a horse didn’t have the dosage, he couldn’t win. It seems lately that theory has gone the wayside. It was only a matter of time as commercial breeding here in the States changed and became focused on speed, fast early works, and what sells at sales. This contributed to the change in the landscape. It is not so rare anymore to see horses like California Chrome outrun their pedigree and go longer than they are bred to because the competition is also bred differently and not as strong.

Look at horses like Snow Chief and Skip Away. They had great careers on the racetrack, and outran their pedigree in one way or another. Neither were particularly good sires and could even be considered duds. Before them we saw horses like Carry Back, Canonero II, and Lil E Tee outrun their pedigrees. With the way we are breeding today, this will become even more common. The game has changed and so has everything in it. Breeding is no exception.

So how can someone who appears to have knowledge on all facets of the game, claim the mating which produced California Chrome, was anything but blind luck, and was the result of careful planning? That defies any intelligent logic I can come up with. The easiest way to prove it is answering the initial question which started the article. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me.

Let’s take a look at the sheet on California Chrome.

It is surely littered with some great names as was pointed out to me when it was insinuated I knew nothing of bloodlines, or this well planned mating. You see names like Danzig, Numbered Account, AP Indy, Northern Dancer, Sir Ivor, and a host of others. Buckpasser, Vaguely Noble, Nashua, it’s quite impressive. How can one possibly opine California Chrome is not impeccably bred to win, and win classics?

His sire, Lucky Pulpit, was a decent horse, not special, but earned $209k on the racetrack including some black type. He ran twenty two times, winning three. Not what you look for in a stallion. He won The Smile, and ran second in the Santa Catalina G2, but never really showed any winning ways. His longest win was at 5 ½ furlongs on grass. He’d probably be one of the first sires you’d toss if looking to breed a classic or Kentucky Derby winner. Prior to California Chrome, his best offspring was probably Rousing Sermon, who like his sire was lacking in the winning ways department. This is more of what you look for in a mating, not the big names in a five cross. You want half the race record but more pedigree. Sires come from good producing families with a lot of black type.

Take a look at the five cross on Diamond Showcase. He has just as an impressive list of names in his lineage as California Chrome. He never won a classic, and is a 5k claimer at Finger Lakes. You will see this on most horses.

Lucky Pulpit’s dam, Lucky Soph, who was by Cozzene (turf), was sent to England to run on the grass. She made about 9k and produced nothing noteworthy. California Chrome’s dam, Love the Chase was not much on the racetrack winning once and earning 7k. Her only foal to race thus far is California Chrome. She did sell for 30k in 2008 but did nothing on the track to justify that price. She wound up sold to Martin and Coburn for a fraction of that prior to dropping California Chrome. Neither she, nor her sire Not for Love could run very far, and they were not predisposed to breeding a classic distance horse, nor a classic winner. Not for Love’s average winning distance was under a mile, and Love the Chase only won sprinting. Again an early toss if you are trying to breed a Kentucky Derby contender, let alone winner.

To take it further, if Love the Chase, in foal to Lucky Pulpit was sold at a sale prior to California Chrome coming along, she’d be hard pressed to bring 10k. She likely wouldn’t. There is not a single graded stakes winner in the first four dams of California Chrome. The first black type you find is in his third dam, Chase the Dream, who was a New York bred and got her black type in state bred restricted races.

This was not a mating out of the Federico Tesio thought process, breed the best to the best, and hope for the best. It was more of a let’s breed this mare to someone convenient, and see what happens. They applied the hope for the best part at least. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing says lightning can’t strike, lotteries are won all the time, but don’t err and call it brilliance or planning.

Can Love the Chase drop another fluke? Sure, it’s possible, there are people who have won the lottery two and even three times. It isn’t likely however. Just ask any of the big breeders who went out and spent big money on an obscurely bred mare who produced a monster. See how that worked out for them, and how many did it again. It won’t inspire cashing out and buying Love the Chase, unless of course, your advisor is the author of the story on how Perry and Coburn were slighted.

Because of inbreeding, there is greatness in the back bloodlines of all racehorses. This is in part why we see these flukes pop up and we will continue to see them. It’s nothing new, and not skill. It’s great when it happens and gives hope to breeders on every level which is great for the sport. I am all for it, but will not mistake it for planning or skill just because the stars aligned. I can enjoy it without that.

This very same writer, who was discussing his article and reasoning on the It’s Post Time radio show, with host JJ Graci, ( went on to compare California Chromes winning a Grade 1 on the grass, with that of Secretariat doing it back in 1973. While a statistically and factually accurate statement there is no comparison in the two feats. Again this is not subjective opinion, but a case where it’s just an inaccurate comparison. California Chrome beat Lexie Lou, a three year old filly who is a G3 winner in the states I believe. Sure she won the Queen’s Plate, but excuse me who was in there? Secretariat beat Tentam when he did it. A world record setter, and major G1 winner on turf and dirt who was likely better on turf. Tentam set the world record for 1 1/8th on the turf at Saratoga in the Bernard Baruch. This was the same year he won the Met Mile on dirt. Later that year he won The United Nations again on grass. He won the Jim Dandy the year before. You want to compare beating Lexie Lou to beating Tentam, are you kidding me?

Sometimes you just have to weigh in.

High 5

This week it goes to Brian Beach. Brian, the agent for Victor Espinoza was rightfully disappointed Victor was not an Eclipse finalist. I agree with him. Victor had a big year and it wasn’t solely because of California Chrome. He handles all that went with the pressure spot he was in with class, dignity and respect even when he was criticized.

Low 5

Repeat offender, let’s leave it at that.

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Jon Stettin

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