The Grey Panel


Chrome’s class not just luck

With the winner having been bought for 32,000 guineas as a yearling, one could say that this year’s 2,000 Guineas was a result for the battlers. However, that would not be an accurate observation: he is owned by an international multimillionaire, has a blue-blooded pedigree and can only be regarded as inexpensive by the standards of Britain’s most costly yearlings, because 32,000 guineas is still a large sum to pay for a horse in a country where training costs are high and prize money, for all but the top races, is paltry. The same day, though, there genuinely was a landmark triumph for the underdogs, when landed an utterly dominant triumph in the Kentucky Derby. California Chrome’s story really is a fairytale, reminding us that once in a while racecourse dreams can come true: the humans around him are the antithesis of the major investors who generally monopolize the big occasions, while his pedigree gives virtually no clue to his merit. However, his sire (who was covering for around $2,000 when Steve Coburn and Perry Martin sent their $8,000 mare to him in 2010) now ranks as sire of a well-above-average winner of the Kentucky Derby, and clearly should be taken very seriously indeed, writesJohn Berry.

California Chrome’s Los Angeles –based trainer Art Sherman had paid one previous visit to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, accompanying the mighty on the long rail journey from California to Kentucky in 1955 when apprenticed to that great horse’s trainer Mesh Tenney. Sherman was very much in the background that day, but he subsequently rode around 1,500 winners as a jockey, and has been making a living as a trainer (firstly in San Francisco, more recently in Los Angeles) since retiring from the saddle. Even so, he surely never dreamed that he would train a horse of the calibre of California Chrome, nor that he would ever match Tenney’s feat of winning the Kentucky Derby with a California-bred.

There is an interesting connection between Swaps’ sire and California Chrome’s sire Lucky Pulpit. They were birds of a different feather in that Khaled was a top-class horse by the best sire in the world () from a mare (, winner of the Falmouth Stakes on Newmarket ‘s July Course and from the family which eventually produced such champions as and ) who had been top-class on the track and who came from an outstanding family; while Lucky Pulpit is considerably less distinguished as regards both performance and pedigree. However, both ‘made a noise’ – which is not ideal for a potential stallion, if one believes that wind problems are hereditary.

Hyperion-line stallions dominated the world for much of the 20th century, despite the fact that Hyperion himself never left England; in fact, he only left Newmarket on a handful of occasions to go to the races. There was, though, a diaspora of many of his sons and grandsons, which led to the phenomenal success of his line world-wide. His influence in America was largely through his sons and Khaled. The former was bought as a yearling by the film producer Louis Meyer before breaking down in training in California and then retiring unraced to stud, going on to establish himself as a hugely influential sire, most obviously as paternal grandsire of the five-time Horse of the Year , a son of the Alibhai stallion .

Like Alibhai, Khaled was bred by the HH Aga Khan III, grandfather of the present HH Aga Khan IV. Trained in Newmarket by Frank Butters, he raced for the Aga Khan in Britain in 1945 and 1946, winning the Coventry Stakes and Middle Park Stakes as a two-year-old and the St. James’s Palace Stakes as a three-year-old. However, it was clear during his Classic season that he was developing a wind problem: he had taken to ‘making a noise’, and it was an easy decision to retire him to stud sooner rather than later. His well-known wind problems put a question mark over his stud prospects; but Californian breeder Rex Ellsworth was not worried about that. Ellsworth dispatched his friend Harry Wragg, the former English champion jockey who had just begun training in Newmarket, to inspect Khaled, and Wragg reported that when the horse cantered across the paddock to see them, his roaring could clearly be heard. This did not, however, dismay Ellsworth, who bought him and took him home, thus starting a great success story in which Khaled bred many champions, often bred and owned by Ellsworth, including the mighty Swaps.

In his racing days, Lucky Pulpit was no Khaled – but he, too, showed signs of a wind problem. Khaled had won five of his eight races in Britain, including two which now carry Group One status, and was placed in two more top-class contests, the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. (He also won an allowance race in California as a five-year-old after Ellsworth, undaunted by the fact that Khaled had already spent a season covering mares in Ireland as a four-year-old before he bought him, put him back into training during his first year in the States). Lucky Pulpit, by contrast, raced 22 times and won only three of these races, with only one of his victories coming in (ungraded) stakes company. However, as his trainer Cliff Sise recently reflected, he was a “pretty horse, natural speed, but he had a breathing problem and was ornery”.

Breathing problem or not, Lucky Pulpit raced honestly and well for an extended period, even if none of his later seasons proved as rewarding as his first one had been. He was in training for four years (2003 to 2006 inclusive, at ages of two to five) and fared best as a juvenile, when he won two of his six starts, taking a maiden special weight at Hollywood Park and an allowance optional claiming race at Del Mar, both over five and a half furlongs. He also finished second in the Pinjara Stakes over a mile at Santa Anita, beaten only a nose, and third in a Grade Three stake, the Generous Stakes over a mile at Hollywood Park, beaten two lengths by the winner, the subsequent Santa Anita Derby winner . He didn’t win as a three-year-old, but he was once again placed in a graded stake, finishing third in the Grade Two Santa Catalina Stakes over 8.5 furlongs at Santa Anita.

Lucky Pulpit won one of his eight starts as a four-year-old in 2005, taking a non-graded stake, the Smile Handicap over five furlongs, during some time he spent that year up at Arlington Park in Chicago. He only ran once in his final season, but that was a good run: second in the Sneakbox Stakes over five and a half furlongs at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. All told, he won three races and recorded 10 minor placings in a four-season, 22-race career, earning $209,928. Realistically, this was not a good enough record to make him a mainstream commercial prospect as a stallion, but he had proved himself a good, tough horse, effective from five furlongs to a mile, and sound enough to stand reasonably regular racing over an extended period. He retired to Harris Farms at Coalinga, California, in 2007, and found himself covering a limited amount of unremarkable mares at fees around the $2,000 mark. And from one of these mares he has bred the unlikely hero California Chrome, who deserves to be hailed as clearly the leader of the current Classic crop in the United States.

It would not be correct to describe Lucky Pulpit as a true blue-blood; but, even so, it does become considerably easier to understand how he can have sired such a champion when one looks at his pedigree. In fact, it was presumably as much his pedigree as his racing record which enabled him to find a place at stud. His sire over the years proved responsible for plenty of good horses (and, in fact, this year ranks as grandsire of the Kentucky Oaks winner as well as of the Kentucky Derby winner, with Kentucky Oaks heroine being a daughter of the Pulpit stallion ) while Pulpit’s sire and grandsire and were even more influential. Lucky Pulpit’s dam , a daughter of the dual Grade Three-winning filly , has also been a good producer, with her other offspring including the good stallion (sire of Grade One winner ) and the good broodmare , dam of Grade Two-placed juvenile .

Taking a slightly broader look at Lucky Pulpit’s family, the view becomes even better. Lucky Spell’s other daughters included Merlin’s Charm, winner in Robert Sangster’s colours of the Jersey Stakes over seven furlongs at Royal Ascot in 1982, and , dam both of the top-class racehorse and sire and of his full-brother , who never raced but who now ranks as sire of the seven-time Grade One winner . Furthermore, Lucky Spell was a half-sister to the Seattle Slew horse , a top-level winner on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1980s and sire of a Group One winner () once his racing days were over.

One swallow does not make a summer, and Lucky Pulpit needs to sire other high-class horses if he is to rank up there with Khaled among the greatest legends of Californian breeding. However, by producing California Chrome he has already put himself into a metaphorical Californian stallions’ Hall of Fame, and he is clearly a much better sire than many would have predicted. While California Chrome is his only graded stakes winner to date, he is certainly not his only good son: Lucky Pulpit’s several other stakes winners include , and . The latter is a particularly admirable horse who has several minor placings in graded stakes company to his name including second in the Grade One Hollywood Futurity as a juvenile in 2011 and who is still showing solid stakes form this season as a five-year-old.

It will be interesting to follow Lucky Pulpit’s career henceforth. Having sired one truly outstanding horse from a seemingly ordinary mare, it is far from impossible that he could produce more very good horses. He is still aged only 13, and it is fair to assume that in the future he will be given much more assistance from mare-owners than he has been in the past.

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