Oh, to lose like California Chrome
“What an amateur.”
That was my first thought after hearing California Chrome owner Steve Coburn rant and whine after the horse’s disappointing performance in the Belmont Stakes. We all exhaled in disappointment when the chance to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 dissolved when California Chrome finished fourth.
Okay, you lost. Don’t be such a weenie about it. Don’t you know anything about horse racing? How on earth did you get that far in the game, dude? If you’re going to rant, rant about your horse being second on the rail going into the far turn, and then the jockey pulling to the outside, four horses deep. Now THAT’S something to get pissed off about. Fire that guy.
Sheesh. It’s horse racing! There are no guarantees! That’s why it’s called gambling, not math! You win some, you lose some, and unless you’re very, very lucky and very, very wealthy, in horse racing, you mostly lose some. But when your horse snags a nice little $80,000 fourth-place purse in the Belmont-freakin’-Stakes, (on top of $1,417,800 in the Kentucky Derby and $900,000 in the Preakness States) buck up and count your cash.
Besides hoping to see the Triple Crown drought end, I had another reason to root for California Chrome. His trainer, Arthur Sherman, rode my parents’ first racehorse, Hart N Sole, to her first win, on April 29, 1968. She won the second race, six-furlongs in a respectable 1:12:1 at Golden Gate Fields, breaking her maiden by six lengths. The comment in the racing results in the newspaper the next day was “So far out in front, she looked the last horse in the third race.”
My dad bragged about that line for months. My parents were overjoyed. Avid racing fans for years, Hart N Sole was their first horse. Although they were seasoned gamblers, they knew nothing about horses, but both being physicians, they had enough cash flow to take a step into horse ownership. When Hart N Sole won, it seemed like a turning point for my parents. They weren’t particularly lucky people. “Lucky breaks” were things that happened to other people. For my dad in particular, Hart N Sole’s win was one of the best moments of his troubled life.
And then there was that other moment.
Several months later, my dad and grandfather returned from the track after one of Hart N Sole’s races looking like they’d been to a funeral.
“Did she win?” I asked with bubbling enthusiasm.
My dad nodded, silently… sadly.
“She got claimed,” he finally said, his voice choking.
Claimed? What the heck is claimed? He told me that right after they snapped the photo in the winner’s circle, the paddock judge came up to Hart N Sole and slapped a tag with a big C on it onto her bridle: C for claimed. A different horse trainer came up to her, took the reins from our trainer, and led Hart N Sole away to a new barn. You see, in horse racing, every horse in a claiming race is essentially for sale. Anyone can purchase any horse in that race simply by handing over a check. It’s how the game is played. Everyone knows the rules.
My parents didn’t know the rules.
That was their “amateur moment” in horse racing. My father found the new owners and pleaded with them to sell her back. No deal. They wanted her, they claimed her fair and square, and that’s how the racing cookie crumbles. Although my dad was a World War II veteran, I think that was the day his heart broke. His drinking worsened from that point on.
My parents tried to bounce back, and purchased Hart N Sole’s half-sister, Lari Sol, who apparently took after the other half. Lari always finished like the actual last horse in the race. She always looked half asleep, without even the energy to hold up her floppy, droopy lower lip, and eventually became a sweet, patient showhorse for my sister and me.
A whole string of mediocre horses followed Lari Sol, and none of them ever made it out of the “also ran” section. Most ended up as pleasure horses or show horses, one was donated to the UC Davis equine breeding program (look up “Frankies Back — you’ll find my mom’s name) but the end result was that my parents sunk themselves into non-recoverable debt.
Constantly chasing their first winning horse “high,” money ran through their bank account like a sieve. Their strategy was to get more horses — surely one of them would be a winner. But they kept buying cheap horses, not ever recognizing that it costs as much to feed and train a bad horse as it does a good one — and they had five at one point, and not even a fourth-place finisher in the bunch.
Horseracing ultimately bled my parents dry. Crushing debt, a complete inability to handle their own finances, and my father’s alcoholism and PTSD and all that it entailed, resulted in both of my parents dying penniless, each with matching brain aneurysms.
As I said — “lucky” was something that happened to other people.
So, I should hate horse racing, right? It was a key factor in my family’s self-destruction. But I don’t. Because, ironically, the few bright moments I had with my parents happened mainly at the racetrack. The results were tragic, yes, but the memories are happy. Precious, even. I remember learning to read from a racing program when I was 4. Poring over the racing results every morning in the newspaper, and picking the day’s winners. And standing at the rail, the roaring grandstand behind me, screaming for our horse. We could win! This could be it! It could happen! There’s a chance!
Or we could lose. Eh, well. Tear up the tickets and try again. I just wish my parents had experienced what it feels like to “lose” the Belmont Stakes — probably like the best moment of their lives.