Why This Veterinarian Won’t Be Rooting for California Chrome

California Chrome and Victor Espinoza
California Chrome and Victor Espinoza are led to the winner's circle after winning the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Everyone knows California Chrome, right? Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock these past few weeks, you’ll have heard of the exploits of the talented colt. Since winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, he’s been hailed as an athlete of “freakish” ability. They say he’s the only horse capable of claiming the Triple Crown title since Affirmed clinched it in 1978.

But then, they say that about all the boys. (Yeah, they’re almost always boys.)

It’s true. Every year, you hear the same sort of chatter. Whether the Derby winner was a come-from-behind nobody or a to-the-manor-born darling, the two weeks following the big race are flush with talk about his prospects for the Preakness. And if the Derby winner hits again, multiply that volume by 10, at least.

Everyone loves a winner. Especially if he’s a magnificent Thoroughbred racehorse just 1.5 miles away from legend status. We simply can’t help ourselves. For men, animals like California Chrome evoke wealth and virility. For women, they stir nostalgic imaginings inspired by adolescent equestrian romance reads.

And why not? We’re in love with a new guy, and he’s way better looking than George Clooney.

The Darker Side of the Track

That doesn’t mean I’m hanging on every word the press churns out about the flashy chestnut colt. Not after 2008, I’m not. In fact, since then, I’ve done my best (with middling success) to steer clear of racing news altogether. Which means no Barbaro, no Breeders' Cup and certainly no Triple Crown.

In 2008, I watched as Eight Belles went down at the Kentucky Derby. Maybe you remember. It was the first time most viewers witnessed a horse’s death broadcast live on TV.

A month later, at the Belmont Stakes, the last big contender to the Triple Crown had to be reined in midrace. Big Brown ended his career with a whimper when his jockey refused to run a halfhearted mount who’d been nursing a patched crack in his hoof since winning the Preakness. Which begs the question: Why would anyone race an injured horse?

Ever since, I’ve been referring to these three storied races as the “Cripple Crown” in remembrance of those horses who’ve been killed or maimed at the events. The term might seem a titch hyperbolic, but can you blame me? Maybe not, if you've been apprised of horse racing’s track record on so-called “catastrophic breakdowns.”

Consider the statistics: According to an industry analysis of more than 750,000 Thoroughbred racing starts (individual races), two fatalities occurred per every 1,000 starts in the United States and Canada during the 24-month period between November 2008 and October 2010. Another analysis by the New York Times, published in 2012, estimates that 24 horses die each week at racetracks across the country.


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