If ever there was a photo that captured the best of California -- its grit, its confidence, its capacity to dream big -- it was taken late Saturday afternoon in Louisville, Ky. It was a photo of a very special horse with a garland of roses.
The horse's name announces its origins, and the feel-good story of this year's Kentucky Derby winner is the improbable stuff of a California dream.
In the wake of California Chrome's dominating win, most sports fans are now familiar with his story. He is the offspring of a mare purchased for a mere $8,000 by two working-class couples with audacious aspirations and the humor and humility to name their stable Dumb Ass Partners because a groom remarked that only a person of such description would buy that undistinguished mare.
They hooked up their mare with a stallion at the Central Valley's Harris Farms horse ranch, a stallion so lightly regarded that his owners charged a paltry $2,500 stud fee. Today, the stud fee for Lucky Pulpit has been quintupled to $10,000, and Harris Farms' general manager told an industry publication this week that the stallion that sired California Chrome is scheduled to mate with 124 mares this year and that "his book is closed."
Before the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome's owners reportedly turned down an offer of $6 million to purchase majority ownership in the horse.
That's the Cinderella story of the horse now pursuing a Triple Crown that has remained unclaimed for 36 years.
There are underlying elements to the story that have particular relevance in California, as they speak to this state's ability to adapt to what Gov. Jerry Brown last week called "the creative destruction of capitalism."
Consider that California Chrome became only the fourth California-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the first in more than 50 years -- at a time when the state's horse-racing industry is in steep decline.
One of the contributing factors in the decline is what some in the industry might call an oppressive government regulation and the inability of this state to offer business-friendly concessions -- a problem that in this case is locked in by California's inflexible ballot-initiative system.
While other states have helped resuscitate their horse-racing industries by allowing tracks to install slot machines to diversify their entertainment offerings, California officials have watched this state's industry wither. They have been powerless to act because a voter-approved constitutional amendment gives exclusive rights to Native American tribes to operate slot machines.
Many breeders, trainers and jockeys have left the state as a result.
But even with reduced purses and fewer racing dates, California Chrome's owners showed there are still opportunities in the industry for nimble start-ups. This was the first horse these owners had bred. Co-owner Steve Coburn credits partner Perry Martin of Yuba City for having studied thoroughbred blood lines and discovered something no one else had seen.
Other elements of the story demonstrate California's resiliency in adapting to economic change. Martin, for instance, had the resources to invest in a horse because he owns a testing laboratory at the former McClellan Air Force Base, which was converted to a business park after being closed by the Pentagon in 2001.
California Chrome trains at Orange County's Los Alamitos Race Course, a dingy facility that has long been home to quarter horse racing -- which is to thoroughbred racing what Major League Soccer is to the National Football League.
But Los Alamitos is being reborn. A new, mile-long track was just completed there last week as it prepares to host its first thoroughbred meet in July, seizing an opportunity created by the December closure of historic Hollywood Park. There, the economic equation changed, making its prime L.A. real estate more valuable for commercial development than for horse racing.
And that created opportunity for reinvestment at Los Alamitos, which will now get a marketing boost from California Chrome.
And then there's trainer Art Sherman, a fixture in California racing since the 1950s. At 77, he became the oldest person to train a Kentucky Derby winner. He's now one-for-one in the race; California Chrome was his first Derby entry.
Resiliency, innovation, doggedness, adaptivity -- these are the elements of California Chrome's feel-good California story.
When he lines up at the starting gate at Pimlico on May 17 to run in the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, all California will be rooting for him. There is only person I can think of who will be certain to bet against him.