Preakness 2014: California Chrome and Pimlico Race Course: Beyond Expectations

by Beth Leary Hegedus

The Preakness starting gate

Charles Hatton, columnist of the Daily Racing Form in 1930, coined the phrase “Triple Crown” that refers to the three spring horseraces that start with the Kentucky Derby (Churchill Downs), continue with The Preakness (Pimlico Race Course), and culminates with Belmont Stakes (Belmont Park). Little did he know that 84 years later the world would be utterly infatuated with “The Sport of Kings”.

I am a newcomer to horseracing, but courtesy of my father telling me about the history of Seabiscuit, and how this little horse helped the United States back on its feet from the Great Depression, I became fascinated.  He shared with me his 1938 memory of listening on the radio to the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, and how this race was just what the country needed. This brief conversation ignited a love of this sport that has since grown exponentially since 2003, the year “Seabiscuit” came to the theater.

Pimlico Race Course has been around since 1870, which is phenomenal.  Hearing the word “Preakness” conjures up history and tradition (139 years), as well as being home to the second leg in the elusive Triple Crown.  Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown: Sir Barton; Gallant Fox; Omaha; War Admiral; Whirlaway; Count Fleet; Assault; Citation; Secretariat; Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.  The statistics are amazing:  274 horses have won the Kentucky Derby; 50 have won the Derby and the Preakness, but only 11 have won the Triple Crown.

Pimlico Race Course – Before The Crowds

On Saturday, May 17, 2014, attendance records were broken for the Preakness as 123,469 clamored to see history made with a California Chrome victory.   The Preakness atmosphere is that of a party. People came from all over the country (and the world), and from all walks of life. Every economic class was well represented, as well as demographics: young, old, even babies were there, and the attire ran the gamut of with the women in long dresses, cocktail dresses, guys in shorts with bow ties, to suits with cowboy boots.  But whatever the women wore, they wore hats to go along with their outfit.  In fact, hats were the order of the day.

In addition to the Preakness Stakes, there were races all day, as well as concerts and tents in the infield.  The infield is just as popular as the grandstand and the clubhouse, and having a spectacularly sunny day made this all the more pleasurable.  And I was most impressed with the Preakness staff that was there to help — from directions, to getting cabs, to pointing you towards the clubhouse — everyone could not have been nicer.  And beverages included beer, wine and soda were offered, but I loved the fact that they also had champagne….in keeping with “The Sport of Kings”.

Hall of Fame – Seabiscuit/War Admiral newspaper – 1938

I was fortunate enough to be taken to the Hall of Fame at Pimlico Race Course by Eric Kalet, photographer for The Paulick Report http://www.paulickreport.com.  This room contains all the memorabilia of the track, and especially the Seabiscuit/War Admiral match race mementos.  I read each newspaper clipping on the wall with awe and admiration, thinking of what horseracing has meant to our country…and to my father.

Viewing the Preakness on television is exciting, but being there in person is beyond expectations!  Last Saturday, there was a palpable and tangible excitement throughout Pimlico, and everyone was just counting down until Race #12 — the Preakness Stakes.  Other horses running in the Preakness had their cheering section too, but it appeared that almost everyone was rooting for California Chrome. Some people even wore homemade California Chrome shirts.

The story of California Chrome reads like a classic Hollywood movie that could be directed by the greats:  John Ford, William Wyler, Victor Fleming, or George Cukor.  Some could even call it a screwball comedy; and it has all the makings of an Oscar-winning film:  action, suspense, disbelief, passion, anxiety, comedy, plenty of drama, an unbelievable story of a horse that really wasn’t supposed to do much. But most notably, a racing partnership between owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, hardworking, average guys. No one believed in the mare they bought “Love the Chase”, and even someone remarked that “anyone who decides to buy this horse is a dumb ass”….and together they called their racing partnership “Dumb Ass Partners”.  “Love the Chase” gave birth to a foal, California Chrome. ..and the rest is history.

This rags to riches story of California Chrome and the team is something no one could make up.  These two co-owners are definitely not in the milieu of the usual owners associated with horseracing — millionaires.  Consider this:  Coburn, who has a day job and once worked as a modern-day cowboy; Martin, who owns Martin Testing Laboratories; Art Sherman, a 77-year-old trainer, and his son, Alan Sherman, assistant trainer;  and a horse no one expected anything from, and most importantly, jockey Victor Espinoza.  But the team of Coburn and Martin had such belief that Love the Chase’s colt was going to be something special.  First a Kentucky Derby win, then the horse captures the Preakness, and the last brass ring to grab is to eat up the track and win the Belmont Stakes…the Triple Crown is now within reach for America’s horse, as Coburn has called California Chrome….and America is pulling for this horse to take it all.

All the races were great on Preakness Day, but obviously, seeing almost 124,000 people cheer on this horse that has captured the heart of the world was phenomenal.  As the horses were called to the post, almost every SmartPhone and camera was pointed towards the starting gate, and as all the horses were introduced, everyone cheered.  But when the announcer said “California Chrome”, Pimlico Race Course erupted in an explosion of cheers, hoops and hollers.  I could say almost everyone in the track was hoping to see the next possible Triple Crown winner.  Seeing California Chrome pull back, bide his time, and then burst out to the front and claim the Preakness Stakes 2014 as his — and knowing he was well on his way to the last leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Stakes — was beyond expectations.

Steve Coburn, Perry Martin, Art and Alan Sherman, and Victor Espinoza have all given us a horse to root for, to dream for, to believe in; a champion we so badly need in this sport.  We are all so hungry for a Triple Crown winner.  Maybe on June 7, we will have our first Triple Crown in 36 years?

Let’s go California Chrome….and capture that dream….for all of us!

Photo: Jimmy Dintino

Getting My “Preak On” – Anticipation of Preakness 2014 – by Beth Leary Hegedus

Tomorrow is going to be a very exciting horseracing day for me — my very first Preakness.

I am incredibly excited as I am somewhat of a rookie to the world of horseracing.  But, I am no stranger to hearing the word “Pimlico”.  My father told me about the 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, held at Pimlico, that inspired our country to pick itself up after the Great Depression.

My trip tomorrow to Pimlico is not just for Pimlico Match Race memorabilia.  It is to see the best horses run in a race full of legacy, tradition and lore.  And quite possibly, see the beginnings of a Triple Crown winner — something that has not been achieved since 1978. Yes, I am a California Chrome hopeful.  It would be so wonderful to see him win tomorrow, and wend his way to Belmont Stakes to capture the elusive jewel of horseracing.  No doubt, it will be a spectacular day of watching 10 thoroughbreds duke it out to the finish line among the pomp, pageantry and the singing of “My Maryland, My Maryland”.

I want to feel, experience, delight, and discover all the unique and fascinating things that Pimlico has to offer: The Black-Eyed Susan official libation; the pictures of famous jockeys, and a track that has seen some marvelous and amazing racing since 1870.

Just like Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, Pimlico is a national treasure!