The Kings and the Sport of Kings are currently a couple of royal surprises.
Theirs are stories needing no help from Hollywood. Truth is not only better than fiction here. It is, to use the favorite word of thoroughbred trainer Art Sherman, a "wow."
The hockey Kings have done what you can't do in the NHL. They have made their way to the Stanley Cup Final by winning three straight playoff series in seventh games. On the other team's ice.
FOR THE RECORD:
California Chrome: A column in the June 5 Sports section previewing the Belmont Stakes and the Stanley Cup finals said the colors of race horse California Chrome's silks were purple and orange. The colors are purple and green. —
Time for Ripley to add to his "Believe It Or Not."
The Kings' story is one of incredible resilience. They have lived the never-say-die sports cliche. Fifty years from now, a junior hockey coach in Thunder Bay will be inspiring young troops with tales of the comeback Kings. For his unbelieving audience, he will repeat the part about the team playing amid movie stars and palm trees in Los Angeles, rather than snowbanks in Edmonton.
We can only wish, for this Stanley Cup series, that the Rangers, not the Kings, had home-ice advantage.
But right alongside, in storybook land, running neck and neck in the category of startling sagas, is the nonfiction yarn of California Chrome. Or, as his supporters hope to be calling him soon, California Triple Chrome.
He has won the first two legs of his sport's annual showcase and will try to add to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories with a Belmont victory here Saturday.
There are always great horses this time of year. Simply winning in Triple Crown competition makes them so. But winning against impossible odds, a la the L.A. Kings, makes "great" an understatement.
For California Chrome, rags-to-riches doesn't quite capture it. When he started, he wasn't an underdog, he was a no-chance. He makes '09 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 longshot, look like the 10th seed in a tennis tournament. If California Chrome were one of those young pitchers from India earning a pro baseball contract and featured in the current movie "Million Dollar Arm," he would have gone on to pitch a no-hitter in the seventh game of the World Series.
Among the horsey set, the California Chrome story is well-known. To the rest of the world just tuning in, it bears repeating.
Although there is some strong lineage in his bloodlines, Chrome was the product of an ordinary mom and dad. So ordinary that Chrome's owners, racing neophytes Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, bought the broodmare for $8,000 and paid $2,000 for the stud fee that produced him.
In racing, regal bloodlines are everything. Millions are paid for horses from seven-figure broodmares and one-stop, six-figure stallions. Chrome's price made him a likely $30,000 claimer.
When a track worker overheard Coburn and Martin discussing the purchase of Chrome's mother-to-be, Love The Chase, he labeled them dumb asses. Instead of being insulted, they embraced it, naming their racing team DAP (Dumb Ass Partners) and adopting racing silks of clashing purple and orange, with a drawing of a donkey on the back.
California Chrome was named by pulling that moniker out of a hat as one of several suggestions of the owners and their wives. A waitress at a restaurant where they were dining drew the name out. Coburn and Martin sent him off to Sherman to be trained. Arriving with the horse was a race-by-race plan, devised by Martin, that would make Chrome the Kentucky Derby champion.
At 77, he had seen it all, including a Kentucky Derby. He was an 18-year-old exercise rider for the legendary Swaps and watched from the backstretch as his horse won the big race in 1955. He has had a fine career in racing, winning more than 2,000 races as a jockey and the same as a trainer. Returning to the Derby with a horse was not in the tea leaves, especially not with a horse whose owners had a written plan.
Nor was it within the realm of comprehension that, when Coburn and Martin were offered $6 million for 51% of Chrome just before the Derby — a return of $5,990,000 on their $10,000 investment — that they would say no.
Neither owner is poor, but Coburn likes to paint himself with a common-man brush. He runs a machine in Nevada that produces coded strips for credit cards and hotel room keys. After each victory, he says he will leave for home and then be "up by 4 a.m. and off to work."
Also adding to the tale is that Sherman trains at a quarter horse track, Los Alamitos. If you had told a Kentucky blueblood, or even a Southern California race fan, that the next Triple Crown prospect would come out of Los Alamitos, they would have sent for the straitjacket.
Victor Espinoza took over the ride on California Chrome on Hollywood Park's last-ever day of competition, Dec. 22. He has won six races in a row, by a total of more than 27 lengths.
Despite riding for the Triple Crown in 2002 aboard War Emblem and failing in the Belmont, little personal was known about Espinoza until he got teary-eyed in the post-Kentucky Derby news conference while thinking about child cancer victims. It turned out he had been giving 10% of his annual income to Southern California's City of Hope Cancer Centers.
Last week, Espinoza, riding at Santa Anita, heard that Joel Rosario, riding at Belmont and one of the top jockeys in the country, had volunteered to work California Chrome until Espinoza got there.
"I think Victor got on the next plane," Sherman said.
Saturday, we will learn whether racing will have its 12th Triple Crown winner, first accomplished by Sir Barton in 1919, and its first since Affirmed in 1978.
California Chrome is the odds-on favorite. His story, however, will always be a longshot.