Yesterday, the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome, won the Preakness.
Barring bad luck, he may win the Belmont, making him the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown.
Mind you, he runs like the great Secretariat, with a huge stride and what seems to be plenty left at the finish line.
He has a good mind and doesn’t act the fool in the gate. His rider, Victor Espinoza, is a strategist, and knows how to place his mount to his best advantage. But in the end, it is the horse who wins. Or loses.
But it may be that California Chrome wins because he is, to be blunt, low bred.
A California bred, Chrome is by a nobody stallion, Lucky Pulpit, out of Love the Chase. Until Chrome’s Kentucky Derby win, his sire commanded a stud fee of $2500. This is akin to paying two cents for a Ferrari. If he’d been in Kentucky, Lucky Pulpit probably wouldn’t ever have gotten lucky, possibly only being used as a teaser.
Understandably, the stud fee is now $10,000. That, though, is still peanuts compared to the nose bleeding heights the blue blood Kentucky stallions charge for a breeding.
I don’t know if Lucky Pulpit ever raced. I’ve read that his dam, Love the Chase, won only one race. She was so poorly thought of that she was purchased for $8000. That, again, isn’t much in the Thoroughbred breeding world.
What California Chrome, with his low rent breeding, is going to prove-in fact, has already proven, is that Thoroughbred racing is finally (one could argue, too late) returning to a normal state of affairs. We are finally going to see horse racing the way it was Before ND- before Northern Dancer.
Northern Dancer, a Canadian bred, won the Kentucky Derby in 1964 in two minutes flat. Although small, he was desperately fast. He possibly possessed the recently discovered ‘speed gene’.
His fortune, though, was made more by luck of timing, not just native ability.
In her book “Northern Dancer” (1995), Muriel Lennox pinpoints this:
…”It was during the mid 1970s that the focus shifted from spending fortunes on horses to making fortunes on horses. Money was in ample supply and the players in this new game were looking for a return on investment. They put their money on Northern Dancer. By some mystery of nature, he was inordinately prepotent. At the time there were 7,000 Thoroughbred stallions at stud in the U.S. alone, yet none rivalled Northern Dancer as a sire of winners and champions.”(Lennox, pg. 121)
Because Thoroughbreds are only bred live cover, (meaning, no artificial insemination or frozen semen), this meant that once Northern Dancer stopped breeding, there would be no more of his get. This, of course, resulted in a “run on the limited number of Northern Dancer offspring” that became “so outrageous that Northern Dancer’s worth as a stallion eventually far surpassed any possible dollar value.” (Lennox, pg. 121).
“It was as if humanity’s age-old love affair with the horse had taken a quantum leap into the bizarre….Thoroughbred racing shifted from sport to big business.” (Lennox, pg. 121)
Over the years, Northern Dancer get has so dominated the Triple Crown races that in many years, ALL of the horses in the race were related to ND…and to each other.
It was as if you went to a family reunion, one where cousins had married cousins, and everyone looks alike.
Such intense in- and line-breeding makes sense-but only if you are trying to accentuate a single trait. It would seem, though, that TB breeders (and horse breeders in general) never think of the downsides of inbreeding. They don’t ever seem to think of consulting a biologist or a geneticist. All they see is the Big Money to be made.
As we have seen in dogs, especially, when you breed for one specific trait, other unwanted- and in many cases, deleterious ones-also come through. This is why Dalmatians bred for spots are also born deaf. It’s why German Shepherds are so prone to hip dysplasia. We know the dangers of incestuous relations in humans and most cultures forbid mating with our closest kin. But we inflict it on our pets/animals with abandon.
Despite the fact that the Northern Dancers were ‘fast’, the record speed for the Kentucky Derby was set by Secretariat in 1973. That record: 1 minute, 59 2/5th seconds, has yet to be broken…and I don’t think it ever will.
Secretariat had NO Northern Dancer blood whatsoever.
Secretariat’s record still stands, despite the incredible improvements that have been made in track footing and maintenance.
That record still stands despite the fact that TB’s are bred to be so ‘light’ (thin bone, thin skin) that only the fact that they have to carry a jockey differentiates them from greyhounds.
That record still stands despite the fact that horses now run on drugs that mask pain (Bute) and keep the horses from “bleeding’ from blown lung capillaries (Lasix). (Which in and of itself is a sign that the horses are bred to a razor’s edge.)
Northern Dancer was retired from the stud in 1986, due to a very low sperm count. He was simply worn out. His last get hit the tracks in 1988.
“By the time of his retirement, the Northern Dancer tidal wave had washed over the entire planet: from Japan to South Africa, through Europe and the British Isles, and back to Canada and the US. His sons and daughters were the pre-eminent breeding stock, his grandsons and granddaughters the elite among racehorses.” (Lennox, pg. 172)
If you didn’t have Northern Dancer blood, you may as well race pigs…you weren’t going to get quality mares for your stallions, the assumption being that your non Northern Dancer horse wasn’t going to win.
Despite modern science, there are still folks out there, breeders and owners, who think that you can’t win without Northern Dancer somewhere in the pedigree.
It’s been 26 years, longer than most TB stallions can breed, since the last Dancers were produced.
Not once has the record Secretariat set been broken.
It could be argued that the record still stands because Secretariat himself was a rare mutation. His heart was half again as large as the normal horse heart. Never mind that he had an incredible mind and knew what he was about.
What breeders don’t seem to understand is that eventually, that ‘speed gene’ washes out. It’s become diluted over the years. Just like you-you may have some of the genes bequeathed to you by your great-great-great grandmother, but you also have the genes from (oh, hell, I can’t do the math) about 70 other people who also contributed to the makeup that is you. And we humans take far longer to reproduce than a horse.
The Northern Dancer influence is finally on the wane. It may be too late for Thoroughbred racing in the US. Many tracks have closed. Fewer horses are being bred. This is due to The Depression we are still laboring under, and the fact that most folks, now, aren’t interested in horse racing.
What it means is that, finally, the field that California Chrome is facing for the Belmont is not closely related to him. If Chrome or the other horses have Northern Dancer in his pedigree, it’s diluted to the point that it has no influence anymore.
This means it’s a fairer race. Which may mean that California Chrome truly is a Triple Crown horse.
“Northern Dancer” Lennox, Muriel, Beach House Books, Toronto, 1995