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By Tom Cushing

Reflections in California Chrome

Uploaded: May 5, 2014

West coast represent! I'm not sure why, really, but I was pleased to see that a "locally" bred horse won this year's Kentucky Derby, in convincing fashion. He had an extra gear coming off the top of the home stretch, and seemed to be well-within himself at the finish. So, although I rarely follow the ponies, sign me up for the Triple Crown chase this year.
Actually, there's more than just provincial pride involved, here.

The backstory has some Seabiscuitly elements. This colt was bred from journey-horse stock. Neither sire nor dam for several generations had much distinguished themselves at the track. He also belongs to two working stiffs who became enamored of him (he IS a real good-lookin' boy), to the point of refusing several million dollars from more Established horsefolk as his talent became apparent. That heart-felt bet appears to be paying-off for them.

His winning time of 2-minutes, three seconds-and-change got me curious (thanks, Al, for all the 'net). It was about average, and of course, many factors can affect the time. But here is a race that's been run on an essentially similar track for over 100 of its 140-year history. The legendary Secretariat holds the Derby record, at more than three seconds faster ? many lengths in horse parlance.

In fact, The Derby's winning times have been relatively static since the 1950s. That seems surprising, for several reasons. First, the track world (humanoid division) recently recognized the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister's first four-minute mile. In the interim, that world record has improved by fully seventeen seconds ? about a 125-yard differential. Training methods, nutrition, the spread of the sport to the world-wide population, and perhaps a few artificial enhancements to muscle and blood play roles in the dramatic improvement in our species' top-end performance.

Second, as opposed to human eugenics, which are generally frowned-upon, thoroughbred horses have been bred forever for the specific purpose of achieving race success over standardized terrain. With the amount of money involved, and stables owned by people unaccustomed to failure, it seems likely that the very best of genetic selection has been devoted to the cause. Now, certainly some stables and trainers have better records than others, but again ? the elite times haven't measurably improved.

Third, the racing industry has been recently rocked by scandal, in terms of those same artificial enhancements, and more. The use of steroids, pain-killers, tranquilizers, stimulants and cruel, crude devices designed to incent greater effort have been alleged by a PETA investigation (now, before you snort like a race horse at the mention of that acronym, I don't much care for most stunts pulled by that organization either, but they may be onto something substantial, here. Early responses tend to suggest as much).

Other high-stakes human and mechanical sports people have been tempted to rule-break (hence the routine PED and doping scandals, as well as NASCAR's famous unofficial slogan "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying"). The difference here, of course, is that the horse lacks free will in its participation. That such manipulations appear Not to have extended the performance horizon is curious ? while it might mean that manipulation is not widespread, instinct and the evidence to-date suggest that such a conclusion may be hopefully, hopelessly naïve.

Indeed, there is a theory that extra-curricular manipulations have tended to produce not faster ponies, but more fragile ones (if true, it's a familiar refrain of other species paying the price for human ethical frailty). I was surprised to learn how many horses die every year in racing or training at thoroughbred tracks in California, alone. Take a guess before reading ? it's 230 in 2008-9, and 245 in 2007-8. That seems awfully high for the 'best athletes' sample of the overall equine population. Still, it's an isolated factoid I ran-across doing unrelated research, so I can't, in fairness, ascribe precise meaning ? except that I AM very glad that none of those fatality stats belonged to me.

For now, I've decided to theorize that Mother Nature herself gets the credit for both our local boy's success, and those static performance stats. Perhaps nature (vs. nurture) accounts for most of the differential in thoroughbred success, and maybe a sustained-speed asymptote has been reached. And just maybe, innate genetic variability is such that bloodlines are not destiny. Secretariat, for example, was notably unsuccessful (in more than 650 'attempts') at producing offspring of similarly unique racing prowess (the record-setting win at Belmont to complete his Triple Crown was thirty-one lengths vs. the best of his year). Conversely, California Chrome's humble origins are well-documented.

The genetic gumbo necessary to produce champions may simply not be readily replicable, and there's something in me that likes that. For that matter, campaigns to improve the human breed have been similarly unsuccessful (see, for example, The Genius Factory ? the Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank). I like the romance and egalitarianism of upwardly mobile colts, and others.

At minimum, we have an insurgent new west coast bloodline to add into Kentucky's traditional dominion over the sport's heritage. And, of course, we can wistfully surmise the idyllic future that probably awaits this fortunate son. So, godspeed California colt -- I will be following the Preakness in a few weeks.