05/01/2014 11:30AM

Hovdey: California Chrome carrying state's hopes and dreams

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome has come to represent the hopes of those looking for a racing resurgence in the West.

In his preview of the 1958 Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated, Whitney Tower took a step back from the hoopla surrounding the exciting California favorite to shed a little calm on the proceedings.

“Silky’s accomplishments, belittled in some quarters, exaggerated in others, have placed him in the unique position of being a full-fledged hero before his supreme trial,” Tower wrote. “As a California phenomenon – in a land where phenomena are not uncommon – Silky Sullivan is more popular than the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants and even, as one Santa Anita regular dared to suggest recently, ‘more popular than Swaps ever was.’ ”

In a way, it is comforting to realize that all things pertaining to the Kentucky Derby were just as insanely exaggerated 56 years ago as they are in 2014. The social media of that bygone era – better known then as newspapers, corner bars and a smattering of network TV – were captivated heart and soul by the stretch-running chestnut from the West. Silky Sullivan was the California Chrome of his day, saddled with expectations of nothing less than a triumphant flight down the stretch at Churchill Downs.

This reporter was a budding fan at the time, glued to his grandfather’s side as the images of the 84th Kentucky Derby flickered in black and white on the set in our living room in a St. Louis suburb. We were hidebound Californians, temporarily displaced by a father’s job opportunity, and the sight of a Thoroughbred hero from back home must have addled my 7-year-old brain. I couldn’t wait to watch Silky mow them down, but my grandfather, who knew the score, patiently explained that there was a horse in the field named Tim Tam who was every bit the equal of my California flash.

Tim Tam walked his beat, handling Lincoln Road by a half-length, while Silky Sullivan floundered in the Kentucky mud and finished up the track. So began my slow descent into dark cynicism and disappointment, tempered only by our return the following year to Southern California and a Dodgers victory in the ’59 World Series. The things you don’t forget.

Like Silky Sullivan, California Chrome has come to mean more than he ever should. Think he’s carrying only 126 pounds and Victor Espinoza on Saturday against Wicked Strong, Danza, Tapiture, and Candy Boy? Think again.

His picture hangs in the state capitol building. His birthplace has become a shrine. Santa Anita management is turning the track into a Chrome Zone on Saturday to take advantage of its favorite son, while Los Alamitos, where California Chrome trains, has done everything but paint the grandstand red.

There are delegations of Californians in Louisville this week, hoping against hope that California Chrome can single-handedly jump-start a racing renaissance in the West. Racing elsewhere might be troubled with issues like medication, takeout, and undercover videos. In California, they’re basically trying to figure out where racing will be presented from one week to the next, and if anyone will show up.

Still, California Chrome has no one to blame but himself. In a racing scene now shrunken to fit every iPad and cellphone, his record this year speaks loudly to all constituencies.

“If California Chrome runs 90 percent of the race he ran in the Santa Anita Derby, he’ll win,” said Chris McCarron, who won the Kentucky Derby twice. “Victor never told the horse to run. All he did was ask him to run. When he pushed the button at the five-sixteenths pole, he put those horses away. I could tell by Victor’s movements that he felt a tremendous turn of foot. He went the last eighth of a mile in 12 and 2, geared down. It was without a doubt the most impressive Derby prep race I saw this year.”

In the eye of this storm of expectations stands Art Sherman, California Chrome’s trainer and protector. Now 36 years removed from his life as a jockey, Sherman still can’t watch one of his horses run without imagining what it’s like to be perched in the saddle, racing hell-bent down the stretch, the wind and sand lashing his face as the Thoroughbred beneath him pounds out a beat that shakes a rider to his very soul.

“I wish everyone could have that feeling, just once,” Sherman said.

On Saturday at Churchill Downs, as California Chrome does his thing, Sherman will be somewhere in the stands, his eyes glued to a television screen. His guts will be churning, his hands busy, his brain on fire – a helpless witness to events suddenly far beyond his control.

“I love this colt, and I love where he’s taken us,” Sherman said before he left for Kentucky. “But the most important thing to me is keeping him sound and healthy. If the Derby is meant to be, it will be.”

This is hardly the message horseplayers want to hear before they leap into the Derby pools. But maybe it is the perfect spirit necessary to rise above the “Hunger Games” atmosphere that has come to surround the Derby, with its thirst for loud spectacle, its corporate calculation, its video board you can see from Alaska. Surviving the Derby has become an accomplishment every bit as significant as winning it.

“If, in reality, he is a hobo masquerading at Churchill Downs with false credentials, he will be quickly put in his place by the likes of Tim Tam and Jewel’s Reward,” Tower wrote of Silky Sullivan. “But, even should this happen, the Silky fans will probably not take to swigging hemlock. For the Silk Man has already made the first part of the 1958 racing season – and win or lose next Saturday, this one will always go down as Silky’s Derby. It can be no other way.”

Win or lose, this one will always go down as Chrome’s Derby. It can be no other way.