Chromies swoon for Triple Crown hopeful

05/24/2014 12:00 AM

05/24/2014 12:49 AM

They wrap themselves in aluminum foil in honor of his name. They tweet endless photos of their hero taking baths and feeling frisky. To show support of an almost mythic quest, they wear purple Band-Aids across their noses and green donkey logos on their hats.

Such are the ways of the “Chromies,” loyal and demonstrative devotees of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.

“He’s just such an interesting horse,” said Chromie Melissa Leos, who fell in love with the colt at Santa Anita Park this spring. “(Trainer) Art Sherman is so cool and so are the owners.”

Now, Chrome mania has stretched nationwide. Motivated by the “people’s horse,” Chromies – mostly new and unabashed racing fans – are out in force from coast to coast but have a particular concentration in the Central Valley. What makes Chromies stand out from everyday horse players? A zealot-like devotion, a flair for fun and a undying belief in their underdog.

Carrying state pride, California Chrome will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. The final and longest step is the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 7 at New York’s Belmont Park.

With his catchy name and handsome looks, the 3-year-old chestnut has made a remarkable run into racing history and captured the imagination of everyday people, especially in his home state. He’s the first California-bred horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

“(California Chrome) is a horse that everybody identifies with,” said Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s longtime director of publicity. “Throw in the irascible owners and trainer ... and we’ve got a movie script that might make Seabiscuit move to the side.”

Many Chromies see themselves in owners Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev. With the stable name of Dumb Ass Partners (and a green donkey logo), they’re two sets of working-class fans who crossed over into the Sport of Kings and hit the jackpot with the first horse they bred. The product of an initial $10,500 investment, California Chrome has won six consecutive stakes and earned more than $3.4 million.

Adding to Chrome’s charming story is 77-year-old straight-talking trainer Sherman. Before Chrome, the closest Sherman got to a Derby horse was as a teenage exercise rider for Swaps, the last California-bred Derby winner to garner this sort of celebrity. Now, Sherman says, he feels “like a Willie Nelson rock star.”

Unlike professional or college sports teams that have marketing departments and ready-made souvenirs, a race horse finds fans the old-fashioned way: He earns them.

“California Chrome does not need a PR contingent,” co-owner Denise Martin said. “His work stands on its own.”

Although he never set foot here, California Chrome has become Sacramento’s favorite horse. The capital city ranked No. 6 nationwide in viewership of his Preakness victory.

After Chrome’s Derby and Preakness wins, fans anonymously decorated the huge chrome horse statue in midtown Sacramento with flowers. Yuba City, home to the Martins, is planning a large downtown viewing party for June 7’s Belmont Stakes.

That hometown connection goes a long ways in creating new fans, said sports fan psychology expert Christian End.

“Similarity breeds liking,” said End, a Xavier University associate professor. “For Sacramento, people can identify with the owners and their story. It makes them like that horse. And the more and more the horse wins, the stronger they identify.”

Loving underdogs definitely is a Sacramento trait, noted Chromie Judy Farah, senior editor at Sacramento radio station KFBK.

“He seems like such a confident horse; even regal, like a King,” said Farah, alluding to Sacramento’s NBA franchise. “I’ve always loved the underdog story, the ones who succeeded despite the odds. ... Maybe because I’m a child of blue-collar factory workers in my mom and dad, I want the long shot to win.”

California Chrome’s jockey silks are purple – just like the Sacramento Kings’ jerseys, added Farah.

“I can’t help but think of the analogies to Chrome and the Sacramento Kings,” she said. “Purple color; crowns like Kings. Sacramento fans already have enough purple to represent Chrome!”

Chromies continue to multiply, but the low-key owners have done very little to promote their horse. California Chrome’s only official websites are his owners’ Dumb Ass Partners Racing pages on Facebook and YouTube. A video Denise Martin made of “Growing Up California Chrome” has gone viral.

“It got maybe 12 views before March,” noted Perry Martin. Now, it’s nearly 24,000.

That’s made the growth of his grass-roots fan base feel organic, fed by a steady flow of social media and united by a #Chromies hashtag. A collection of California Chrome news, “CalChrome,” has nearly 11,000 followers on Twitter. His followers tweet mash notes about his big brown eyes and marvel at his energy. It’s a nonstop equine love fest.

When New York racing officials this week questioned Chrome’s use of a nasal strip (similar to those worn by football players), fans started wearing (often purple) strips across their noses to show support. Even ESPN’s “SportsCenter” crew donned “Chrome” nasal strips during a broadcast.

The owners have embraced their horse’s growing fan base. After California Chrome won the Santa Anita Derby, they invited fans to join them in the winner’s circle. More than 100 crammed into the official photo, including one adorned with foil.

Among those who caught Chrome fever that day were Melissa and Rory Leos. Both Los Angeles attorneys and California natives, they haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner in their lifetimes.

“I told my husband if this horse wins the (Kentucky) Derby and Preakness, we’re going to the Belmont – and we are!” Melissa Leos said. “This horse is a Cal-bred and we’re Cal-breds, too.”

After last Saturday’s Preakness victory, Steve Coburn summed up Chrome’s appeal. “He loves people,” Coburn said. “He loves what he does and that’s why he’s America’s horse. ... We just hope that this horse is letting America know that the little guy can win.”

Meanwhile, California Chrome is getting to know Belmont Park on Long Island, N.Y. Tuesday, the chestnut colt moved into Barn 26 to prepare for his upcoming race. According to assistant trainer Alan Sherman, the colt from the parched Central Valley is getting used to rainy weather. On Thursday, Chrome seemed to skip over Belmont’s sloppy main track during a morning gallop.

Chrome also has maintained his California cool. On Friday, he ignored a large opossum that ran across his path while he jogged around the Belmont oval.

That laid-back swagger is part of Chrome’s allure.

“This guy has shattered my reality,” said Christian Hellmers, a professional gambler who was only a toddler when Affirmed won the 1978 Triple Crown. “He’s so precocious and so classy. It’s a true testament to his greatness. I don’t throw the word ‘Jedi’ around often, but he’s definitely a Jedi.”

Hellmers, who lives near Del Mar Race Track in Southern California, went to the Kentucky Derby with fellow handicapper Jon Hurd. Both dressed in silver tuxedo jackets with “Cal Chrome” across the back. After Chrome’s victory, they crashed the winner’s circle photo and Hellmers snagged a Derby rose.

“I just love the fact that a horse this great still gets doubted,” Hellmers said. “It takes such a combination of grit, class and energy – chemistry, too – to do what he’s done. If not him, then nobody can win (the Triple Crown).”

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