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At this writing, many voices have already sounded out about the recent sale of California Chrome to Japanese interests. As the champion is due to leave prior to Christmas, I wanted to add my own voice to the choir.

 

I have to admit that I’m still in shock. California Chrome stands large among that small, elite group of American thoroughbreds that over the centuries gave the breed and the sport wings. So the very idea that the consortium that owns Chrome would sell him to another country still floors me, and the message it sends in so doing is dark. Very dark. Because it has the effect of a kind of semantic vortex, ramming the point home to me that any thoroughbred is essentially a commodity and, as such, about making money. And more money. Ad infinitum.

Too, the timing of the transaction, given what the sport is going through in the USA this year was, to be kind, “unfortunate.”

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The first thing that happened when I heard the news was a voice inside me that whispered: “…so…Chrome doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

My response may sound silly, but even Samuel Riddle, all those decades ago, understood that Man O’ War belonged to the people.

 

When a horse belongs to the people, they are woven into a nation’s identity and into personal histories.

It can happen with real, live superstars like California Chrome, or those that lived long before most of us were born.

And it isn’t always in the cards that a great thoroughbred receives this kind of recognition; in fact, those thoroughbreds who make the journey from the track into the heart of a nation are small in number.

Time does nothing to wither the people’s devotion to the few who join the pantheon: Man O’ War, Exterminator, Phar Lap, Red Rum, Greyhound, Arkle, Dan Patch, Seabiscuit, Northern Dancer, Desert Orchid and Secretariat are with us today, glorious in their vividness. Stories about them are passed down over generations, so central are they to the foundation of racing and National Hunt culture. They live on within a people’s consciousnes, a nation’s collective memory.

Chrome grabbed my attention early in his three-year old campaign. It was his courage and the sheer majesty of watching him run that did it. For three minutes, several times through 2014, Chrome lifted me up and took me to that world where great horses take those who journey with them.

And journey I did. Fervent hopes travelled with Chrome and his team when they arrived in Kentucky a little ahead of the first Saturday in May in 2014. By then, I was tired of hearing how the big chestnut was a “freak,” given his pedigree. I understood that Chrome was a champion-in-the-making. (It was enough for me that he carried Pulpit, A.P. Indy, Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew, Numbered Account and Secretariat over his first five generations. As a racing historian, I know that a great individual can emerge from a sire line or female family as much as three generations later. This is far more usual than a casual observer might think. In the case of Chrome — he was to become the most accomplished of the A.P. Indy line by the time he retired. )

Chrome’s Derby gave me the same chills and sense of wonder that I had felt watching Barbaro in 2006 and Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks. It was the spectacle of the colt leading the field home that so reminded me of my response when first Barbaro, and then Rachel, came down the home stretch. My heart cracked wide open and I wept.

On our journey went, through the highs and lows.

Dubai 2016: “…It’s alchemy in Dubai: Chrome turns to gold…” This call will live with me forever, right up there with the most famous lines from Secretariat’s Belmont and Zenyatta’s BC Classic win.

When Chrome left the Shermans’ barn at Los Alimitos, California for the last time, I watched it live and tried not to cry. Art Sherman and son Alan, together with Dhigi and Raul, were family by now, and I could almost feel what they were feeling as the time for their colt’s retirement drew nigh.

 

In Kentucky, I delighted in his burgeoning relationship with Gilberto at Taylor Made and the spontaneous home videos and photographs of them playing together. And the folks at Taylor Made were wonderful, honouring the social contract with Chrome’s faithful following in so many ways, from Chrome visits to timely updates.

CHROME and Gilberto at Taylor Made.

 

 

All seemed right in Chromeland……until the news broke, on November 20, 2019.

I had to read the headlines twice. I just couldn’t believe it.

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I appreciate that thoroughbred breeding is an international affair. But that’s not new. The British stock that travelled to Kentucky in the eighteenth century were, after all, the foundation of the North American thoroughbred.

And I have little doubt that California Chrome will be given the royal treatment in Japan.

He’ll stand at Arrow Stud, a base that doesn’t attract elite mares but, rather, more modest types. His full book for 2020 indicates enthusiasm, but it also bespeaks an industry that is no less impatient for quick results than anywhere else in the thoroughbred racing world. As was pointed out to me by bloodstock expert Michele MacDonald recently, Empire Maker only got 50 mares in his last year in Japan: despite a superb pedigree, he was apparently a less-than-succesful outcross to the Sunday Silence bloodline and too slow to get winners. And so it was that Empire Maker, the grandsire of TC winner American Pharoah, came home.

My sorrow is founded on the fact that Chrome isn’t just any horse. He’s an American icon and the pride of a nation. He’s also a conduit, bringing youth and others into horse racing by closing the distance between the sport, its superstars and the public.

But none of that mattered, it would seem.

It would have been unthinkable in the racing community of owner-breeders like William Woodward or the late Penny Chenery, who were only too pleased to share their pride in their champions with the nation.

As a fan recently wrote: “Well then, let’s just ship them all out of the country. I’m done with racing.”

How very sad.

(David Trujillo on Youtube)

 

BONUS FEATURES

1) I wrote my heart out about Chrome and his team on THE VAULT on January 31, 2017:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/to-chrome-and-his-team-how-you-made-me-feel

2) Did you know this about California Chrome? Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse. Highly recommended.

http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2019/11/25/chrome-gone-but-forever-part-of-history.aspx

3) Posted by David Trujillo (Youtube)

 

4) Before California Chrome’s Belmont Stakes: fan video posted by America’s Best Racing

 

5) From RIDE TV

6) Another video made lovingly by a fan (debhart01498 on Youtube)

7) Playing: Chrome and Gilberto at Taylor Made (Armando Reyes, Youtube)

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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LAMMTARRA_Bq1Fs64IcAAdFgN.jpg-large

 

Just as I was getting ready to post the second part of my Australian and New Zealand thoroughbred article, the news came that Lammtarra had died. And the presses ground to a halt, here, and right around the world. The internet was alive with photos, dedications and memories. The racing world stopped betting, debating, reporting and analyzing, to mourn.

Unless you were following international racing in 1994-1995, Lammtarra is only a name to you, if that. It has become in vogue to talk about great thoroughbreds using metaphors like the one of a comet flashing through the firmament. But what Lammtarra represented was something more curious, something inexplicable, something even those who knew him best seemed at a loss to capture.

Lammtarra was a symbol — and symbols, by definition, are always greater than whatever they stand for. Symbols, like metaphors, are part of a secret and universal grammar. Each man, woman and child, wherever they are, understands this secret way of saying. And of thinking. Since a symbol, like a metaphor, is there to take the mind to higher ground.

Although we like to clarify them by saying that X is a “symbol of” something or other, the greatest symbols just are. 

And Lammtarra just is  — and will forever be.

For Laura Thompson, in her brilliant book, Quest For Greatness: A Celebration of Lammtarra and the Racing Season (ISBN: 0 7181 4159 8) — the kind of book that sets the standard for what a book about a thoroughbred and the sport itself should be — Lammtarra was the embodiment of greatness:

” … At the heart of flat racing, there is an almost painful dialectical pull: between the enduring memory of a horse, and the ephemerality from which that memory proceeds. This dialectic is of the essence, and stronger than in any other sport. In Lammtarra, it found its perfect expression. Never was a sporting career so etiolated and so resonant: it was as thin and fine as one of the horse’s own limbs.” (p. 4)

True to the landscape of symbol, listing the handsome chestnut’s endowments and accomplishments only dwarf the individual from which they flowed. Lammtarra was brilliant on the turf, coming back from an illness that almost killed him to start his 3 year-old season with the Derby, where he set a turf record that stood for 15 years (until Workforce took it down in 2010). In a short career of 4 starts/4 wins, including the 1995 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Stakes at Ascot and the Arc in the same year, Lammtarra did the impossible.

But merely saying it falls pitifully short of the mark. The video record of the 1995 Derby is a treasure, not the least for its obvious disregard of the Godolphin entry, and understandably so. After all, Lammtarra was making only the second start in his life as a racehorse, the first of which had been over a year before:

Walter Swinburn, who rode him to victory, remembers that after they crossed the finish line, Lammtarra wanted to keep running, just as he’d done in his first win as a two year-old. Today, Swinburn places Lammtarra in the triumvirate of thoroughbreds that he considers the best he ever rode. The other two are Shergar (1978) and the lesser-known, though gifted, Zilzal (1986).

Placing Frankie Dettori in the saddle for the last two races of his colt’s career, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was very likely as shocked as the rest of the European and British racing community to see what Lammtarra had in store. Only the incomparable Mill Reef (1968) had ever pulled off this triple in a single season. But, unlike Paul Mellon’s champion, Lammtarra was still learning the game:

And then he was gone.

Sent to the breeding shed, Lammtarra stood only one season at his owner’s Dalham Hall Stud before he was sold, for 30 million dollars, to take up stud duties in Japan. There, too, he failed to get anything even close to his own brilliance. In August 2006, upon learning that Arrow Stud was planning to sell Lammtarra to Korean interests, HH Sheikh Mohammed bought his champion back, and the stallion ended his days in the lush paddocks of Dalham Hall Stud near Newmarket. Even in retirement, Lammtarra had frequent visits from horse people of all kinds and when the Dalham Hall stallions were on parade, he was proudly brought out as well. It was eminently clear that HH Sheikh Mohammed and the Dalham Hall staff who cared for him would honour Lammtarra as the champion he was until the end of his days.

URBAN SEA, herself a winner of the Arc and the dam of GALILEO, SEA THE STARS, MY TYPHOON and BLACK SAM BELLAMY among other champion progeny with her 1997 filly foal by LAMMTARRA who was named MELIKAH. Owned by Darley, MELIKAH MELIKAH is the dam of champion MASTERSTROKE. Like many of LAMMTARRA'S daughters, who are sought after, MELIKAH brings her sire's brilliance to her offspring.

URBAN SEA, herself a winner of the Arc, and the dam of GALILEO, SEA THE STARS, MY TYPHOON and BLACK SAM BELLAMY with her 1997 filly foal by LAMMTARRA who was named MELIKAH. Owned by Darley, MELIKAH is the dam of champion MASTERSTROKE, who is now at stud in France. Like many of LAMMTARRA’S daughters, who are sought after, MELIKAH is playing an important role in keeping LAMMTARRA’S memory alive. Photo and copyright, seathestars.com

 

Although his breeding career was unsuccessful, Lammtarra’s daughters and their progeny are still prized, given his exceptional bloodlines. Here is Lammtarra’s grandson, Masterstroke (2009), running third behind the winner, Solemia, in the 2012 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, beating the likes of the 2012 Derby winner, Camelot (2009), and superstar, St. Nicholas Abbey (2007) to the wire.

Lammtarra means “invisible” in Arabic. It seems a strange name to give a colt of such royal lineage. But the name certainly carries a very ancient wisdom about what can be known versus what lies beyond. And in Lammtarra, that wisdom found an eternal home.

 

 

” … you are whatever a moon has always meant
 and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody

knows 
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the

bud
 and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows 
higher than soul can hope

or mind can hide) 
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart) “

 

(from “i carry your heart” by e.e. cummings)

 

This article is respectfully dedicated to HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and to the the staff of Dalham Hall Stud.

 

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