Answering the question "What is California Chrome worth as a stallion?" usually begins with a long pause followed by, "Well, that depends on a lot of factors."
On paper, the son of Lucky Pulpit is not a standout prospect. His dam, Love the Chase (by Not For Love) won one race at 3, and California Chrome's sire has produced four stakes winners out of five crops of racing age—that's 2% stakes winners out of 161 foals.
Offsetting this shortcoming, however, is the flashy chestnut's remarkable performances on the racetrack, and if he becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner June 7, then his marketability automatically elevates to super stardom.
But as brilliant as he is as a racehorse, the transition from racing stable to stud barn is still tricky. The handicapping goes beyond his ability to attract mares for the first two years and becomes focused on his potential to sire top-class runners for many years.
"The day you retire a horse as a stallion is completely different than your last day racing," said John Sikura, owner of Hill 'n' Dale Farm near Lexington. "You are now being judged by the record of other stallions standing in your price range."
And as the North American foal crop has declined over the last six years, so too has the number of stallions and the number of mares being bred. The competition for quality mares is fierce.
Where California Chrome will stand his first season at stud and for how much is difficult to assess because the goal of the owners is unclear, according to a half-dozen stallion managers and bloodstock agents. Owner/breeders Steve Coburn and Perry Martin have already turned down millions of dollars for their star homebred—twice. The partners reportedly were offered $6 million for a 51% ownership and a separate offer of $10 million prior to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). These offers were rejected because Coburn and Martin had a strong personal connection to the horse and have believed since he was a foal that he could win the Derby. Coburn and Martin are also fiercely loyal to the California breeding program, so it is not out of the realm of possibility that California Chrome could stand his first year in the Golden State.
Both Coburn and Martin declined to comment on California Chrome's stallion career, preferring instead to remain focused on the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Despite Coburn and Martin's passion for California, owners, bloodstock agents, and stallion managers said it is unlikely California Chrome will enter stud in California, especially if he wins the Triple Crown. A first-year stallion needs the most support he can get and the depth of quality broodmares in California cannot compare with Kentucky.
"Until a horse is proven, you have to start in Kentucky, even though my heart tells me something different," said Mike Pegram, who is chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California board and an acquaintance of Coburn's. He lost the Triple Crown title by nose with Real Quiet in 1998 and currently stands his two-time Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner and champion Midnight Lute at Hill 'n' Dale near Lexington.
If California Chrome does not win the Belmont, his anticipated entering stud fee is projected to be around $20,000 to $25,000. With a Triple Crown title, the fee could easily double, according to Charlie Boden, head of sales for Darley.
A Triple Crown title would certainly warrant consideration of an even higher fee, but Sikura said he hopes the stallion prospect's managers will be more strategic.
"The worst thing you can do is overprice your horse and resort to foal-sharing and begging for mares in your first season," Sikura said. "If you believe in your sire, your only concern should be to get a good representative sized book of quality mares. If he is good, the runners will come and stud fee will take care of itself."
Coburn and Martin have been remarkably successful in how they managed California Chrome's career with the help of trainer Art Sherman. They continued making the savvy choice as Sherman revealed recently of a plan to race the colt as a 4-year-old regardless of whether he wins the Triple Crown. A successful season at 4 will only enhance his value at stud, say experts.
"Most horses get better when they turn older; they get faster," Boden said. "If he stays sound and becomes a Triple Crown winner and becomes a top handicap horse, the lack of pedigree becomes less important in the marketability of the horse."
One thing is certain, if California Chrome hits the wire first in the Belmont there will be no shortage of farms willing to try turning him into a successful stallion—including Sheikh Mohammed's Darley.
"He is a special horse. I hope he gets it done," Boden said. "It would be great for the sport and good for the public perception about why we do what we do. He is an interesting horse to Darley if he wins Saturday. We have not thrown our hat in the ring, but we are in the market for horses that make history."