Home-state pride brought crowds out to cheer for California Chrome at Turlock Turf Club

naustin@modbee.comJune 7, 2014 

  • BELMONT RACE TRIVIA

    • Since 1905, 11 racers have won starting at California Chrome’s No. 2 post position. The sweet spot is 1, with 23 winners.

    • Chrome’s color was also in his favor. There have been 54 chestnut horses and 54 bays who won the race, 30 brown horses, three black, two gray and just one roan.

    • The biggest win at Belmont was by Secretariat, who won by 31 lengths for his Triple-Crown capture in 1973.

    • The white carnation is the flower of the race. Winners get a blanket of more than 700 carnations glued on a green velveteen spread.

    • The perpetual trophy is the August Belmont Memorial Cup, an 18-inch-high solid silver bowl and cover made by Tiffany & Co. The 1869 Belmont winner Fenian tops the cover and three horses support the bowl – Herod, Eclipse and Matchem – representing the three foundation sires of thoroughbreds. The winning owner, trainer and jockey get to keep silver cup miniatures.

— An increasingly subdued crowd of about 900 watched California Chrome’s ill-fated run for the Triple Crown on Saturday at the Turlock Turf Club. At the race’s end, Dave McMillan of Turlock was one of the very few pumping his fist and high-fiving friends. His cheering came despite having put $1,000 down on Chrome to win the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York.

“I was going to win some money,” he said with a shake of his head after the fourth-place finish for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Asked why he cheered, McMillan said, “You have to. That’s why they call it gambling.”

Less philosophical was Debbie Carpenter of Modesto, wearing a bright purple California Chrome shirt she bought online and betting on her first-ever horse race to cheer on the Valley’s own. “Isn’t that sad,” Carpenter said, visibly upset, before driving away after the race.

Horseback-rider Cara Johnson also had high hopes riding on the 3-year-old colt born at Harris Farms in Coalinga. “I just want to see him win the Triple Crown. Chrome needs to win. California needs this,” she said.

Taking a measured approach were Glen Dahl and son Lee Dahl, comparing notes earlier in the afternoon as they selected races and betting strategies. “Over the last 20 years, this is the strongest horse coming into this race,” said Glen Dahl. “But from an odds perspective, it’s hard to make money when you’re betting the favorite.”

A few tables over, Steve Goodyear and Bob Burkatt were debating exacta bets, money put down on the first and second finishes, and trifectas, covering the first three places. Then there are the superfectas, picking the top four. Or, put down money on a horse to place or show.

Burkatt had advised a first-time gambler who wanted to bet $1,000 not to put it all on one, but to spread it among a lot of options. By race time, the rookie had $760 down on Chrome’s race, in a stableful of combinations.

A superfecta with Chrome and three others was bet by Sam Immediato. “If that came in, I’d be walking out of here with thousands on a $1 bet,” he said. “But that’s a long shot.”

Win or lose, “I think it’s fun,” Paula Spooner said. “Either way, it’s going to be history.”

It was good business for the Turf Club, at the Stanislaus County Fairground, said manager Ray Simpson. He estimated the crowd at 850 to 900, compared to 236 for last year’s Belmont Stakes. Judging from the full tables and long lines at the grill, food and beverage sales were paying off as well.

An estimated 15 million viewers followed the pounding hooves nationwide, with roughly 100,000 from the stands at the New York track.

Handicappers gave Chrome 4-5 odds, meaning every $5 ticket could be turned in on a win for $9. But the smart money, had he won, would have been on keeping those winning tickets. Uncashed $2 tickets from Affirmed’s 1978 Belmont win were selling on eBay for close to $150, according to Forbes.com.

Turf Club gamblers placed their bets between bites, sips and chatter with friends.

But betting is all about numbers, and racing is more about heart. Chrome took off down the track with a wide margin of hearts on his side, but there’s a reason the Belmont Stakes is called “The Test of Champions.”

No horse has worn the crown since Affirmed 36 years ago, with now 13 contenders just footprints in the sandy track. There have been 11 Triple Crown winners in all of history.

But even coming in fourth, the stallion is a winner for Chrome’s owners, Denise and Perry Martin of Yuba City and Steve and Carolyn Coburn of Topaz Lake, Nev. Far from the bluebloods generally associated with elite thoroughbreds, Martin runs a lab testing high-reliability equipment like air bags, according to the Belmont Stakes website. Coburn is a press operator for a firm that makes the magnetic strips found on credit cards.

Bee reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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