ELMONT, N.Y. — There's an old saying in horse racing that all men are equal on the turf and under it.
Put another way, this sport confounds sheiks and scions of American dynasties who drop millions of dollars in futile efforts to breed a Kentucky Derby winner. Meanwhile, two neophytes can spend $10,000 to breed a horse for the first time and come within a whisker of the Triple Crown.
That's California Chrome's story as he prepares to chase racing's signature achievement in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Far more than racing excellence, this chestnut colt epitomizes the essential romance of the sport — the centuries-old belief that any man can throw his money behind the right horse and come up a king.
"It keeps the dream alive," says Dan Rosenberg, a longtime Kentucky horseman and president of Rosenberg Thoroughbred Consulting. "When it's everyman who wins, fans get so behind it."
As a longtime player in the breeding industry, Rosenberg knows how hard it is to breed a horse who can win any race, much less contend for a Triple Crown. When people tell him he knows how to pick a good horse, he just laughs.
"If I did, I'd be a billionaire," he says. "It's like trying to pick a future Heisman Trophy winner by looking at photos of an elementary school class."
This is a sport obsessed with pedigree, one in which trainers quote a horse's ancestry as if they're reading Bible verses.
So California Chrome's origins — son of a disappointing Maryland-bred filly named Love the Chase and a handsome stallion who didn't like to race named Lucky Pulpit — have been a source of puzzlement. Right up until his Kentucky Derby win, rival trainers thought California Chrome lacked the genes to be a great horse. Even now, breeders are skeptical of his pedigree in thinking ahead to his future as a stallion.
But one of his co-owners, Perry Martin, saw promise in Love the Chase's ancestry. Martin, who owns a product-testing company in California, is the horse nerd of the self-proclaimed "Dumb-Ass Partners." Steve Coburn, who works for a Nevada company that makes the magnetic strips on credit cards, is the dreamer.
Coburn swears that a few weeks before Love the Chase gave birth, he dreamed of a chestnut colt who'd do brilliant things. From early on, he and his wife, Carolyn, loved visiting California Chrome. They dubbed him "Junior" and fed him Mrs. Pasture horse treats.
Veteran California trainer Art Sherman considered the colt precocious, but he and his son, Alan, admit they thought Martin was crazy when he emailed them a plan to get California Chrome from his early 2-year-old races to the Kentucky Derby.
"How do you map out a trail to the Kentucky Derby when he's 2 years old?" says Alan Sherman, the horse's assistant trainer. "Things don't usually work out like that."
But California Chrome has fulfilled every fantasy Coburn and Martin harbored, winning six straight races, including the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. He now stands on the cusp of history, one win away from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
He isn't the first to mount these summits from humble origins. Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, was purchased for $17,500 as a yearling. Smarty Jones, who came within a length of winning the Triple Crown in 2004, was the product of a mom-and-pop Pennsylvania breeding operation. His near-miss predecessor, Funny Cide, was owned by a group of high school buddies from small-town New York who traveled to Triple Crown races in a school bus.
California Chrome combines elements of all those stories, and his owners seem to relish their status as populist heroes. After the Preakness win, Coburn said he hoped the horse would inspire little guys all over the country to stick with their dreams.
"This horse could have been born to anybody," he says. "He was born to us, and we're very blessed with that."
The rags-to-riches storyline has inspired swelling interest in the horse, whose connections have appeared everywhere from "The Late Show With David Letterman" to the New York Stock Exchange.
"When it happens with the little guys, it's even more appealing," says Tim Capps, who analyzes the racing industry as a professor at the University of Louisville. "These guys ain't nothing like establishment. They look like two good old boys who got lucky. It's just a really cool story."
NBC analyst Randy Moss says he likely won't rate California Chrome on the same level as Affirmed, Seattle Slew or Secretariat, even if he wins Saturday.
"But to me, that doesn't diminish his accomplishment at all," Moss says. "It's just such an unbelievable, improbable, uplifting story. I think it's really connecting with the general public."
The power of the story isn't lost on rival horsemen, many of whom say they'd like to see California Chrome win the Belmont Stakes if their horses don't.
"The connections, you can't help but root for them," says Jimmy Jerkens, who will saddle Wicked Strong, the 6-1 second choice on the morning line. "I'm almost sorry we've got a horse in the race. They're such nice people. The fact that the trainer goes back to a different era in racing, that's what's really nice."
Art Sherman, 77, is certainly part of the underdog story. Save for his early years as a stable worker and exercise rider for the great horse Swaps, he has never worked with a champion of this level. For decades, he toiled anonymously, producing winners on the California circuit from his modest barn at Los Alamitos Race Course. He never expected to work on the Triple Crown stage.
"I can't believe it," he often says.
Beneath all these layers of economics and history lies a simpler story about a horse and the men immediately around him. California Chrome's daily companions — Alan Sherman, exercise rider Willie Delgado and groom Raul Rodriguez — have watched him grow into a more powerful and poised horse. But he's also their buddy. You can see it in the affectionate way Delgado rubs his nose at tense moments. The exercise rider dubs the group "the Four Amigos."
The three human amigos aren't going to think any less of the horse if he fails to pull off this grand narrative.
"I won't be disappointed, because when we started this whole ordeal, the only ones who had faith in him were the owners and us," Delgado says. "Everybody else, even before the Derby, you had handicappers saying, 'I don't know why he's even in there. He's just Cal-bred. He's just this or that.'