Legend has it that Louis B. Mayer was told to get a hobby.
It was 1937, and the Hollywood mogul was the highest-salaried person in America, pulling down $1.3-million in annual paychecks (roughly$20-million on today's dollars). Most Americans were still in the throes of the Great Depression, but the film industry was thriving, and so was horse racing.
Mayer couldn't have helped but notice his cronies' interest in the Sport of Kings - Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, Gary Cooper and a host of Hollywood's A-list had brought the turf to meet the surf at Del Mar in July of 1937; Santa Anita, where four-year-old Seabiscuit was developing a name for himself, had been re-opened in 1934. Mayer's great rival, Jack Warner, was in the midst of constructing his new racetrack, Hollywood Park, in Inglewood.
The Russian-born Mayer had parlayed ownership in a rundown Massachusetts burlesque house into a partnership in one of the greatest Hollywood studios of all time, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with a head for business and an eye for talent, and that worked as well in the horse business for him as it did in Hollywood.
Though his involvement only lasted a decade, from his 504-acre Mayer Stock Farm near Perris in Riverside County, Mayer would almost single-handedly bring back a once mighty California breeding program and his influence would extend into the 21st century. Five-time American Horse of the Year Kelso was sired by the Mayer-bred Your Host; 1945 Horse of the Year Busher won that honor in Mayer's pink and blue silks; he bred the top race mare Honeymoon, whose son, Honeys Alibi, will be in pedigrees for generations to come as the broodmare sire of the great filly Dahlia.
But perhaps most memorably, three Kentucky Derby winners - including California Chrome - are direct female-line descendants of two Mayer-bred siblings.
Mayer Stock Farm was, by all accounts, a showplace with a one-mile training track, two 36-stall training barns, two 8-stall foaling barns, and a six-stall stallion barn. To fill up that barn, Mayer spent $100,000 on the English-bred stallion Beau Pere, who had been a very successful sire in New Zealand and Australia.
Having reportedly tried to purchase the great English sire Hyperion from Lord Derby, Mayer ended up having to settle for his yearling son, Alibhai, who unfortunately bowed both front tendons and never competed in a race, instead joining Beau Pere in the stallion barn in 1941. Alibhai would eventually go to Leslie Combs II's Spendthrift Farm in Lexington for a world-record syndication price of $500,000 in 1947; an aged Beau Pere went to the same group for $100,000, but died before he was able to cover any mares.
In the years between, the two stallions would have a tremendous effect on American breeding, and more specifically, re-spark the California program. They helped Mayer into position as the state's leading breeder for ten consecutive years, and as the leading breeder of stakes winner in the United States from 1947 to 1949. He was also runner-up to the mighty Calumet Farm as leading breeder by money earned for four years.
Two fillies to come out of the Mayer breeding program were Iron Maiden, a 1941 War Admiral filly, and Judy-Rae, a daughter of Beau Pere foaled in 1944. The pair were out of Betty Derr, herself a half sister to the 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen.
Mayer didn't hang on to either filly. Judy-Rae's first foal was bred by Coldstream Farm, while Iron Maiden was sold to restaurateur W. W. "Tiny" Naylor for $7,500 while still racing. Naylor bred her to Beau Pere and got a filly in 1946. Named Iron Reward, Naylor sold her to Rex Ellsworth, and sold Iron Maiden to E. B. Johnston, who in turn sold her to Calumet.
Calumet bred 1957 Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege out of Iron Maiden.
Ellsworth, an Arizona cattleman, was a big fan of Mayer's Beau Pere, and had reportedly traded a number of cattle to Mayer in exchange for breeding seasons to Beau Pere and Alibhai. As Mayer did in obtaining Alibhai, Ellsworth went to Europe for a son of Hyperion, and brought back Khaled.
Bred to Khaled, Iron Reward produced 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, who, if you've been following California Chrome's story, you know was accompanied to Churchill Downs by his 18-year-old exercise rider Art Sherman, who now, at 77, is the oldest person to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
Swaps' granddaughter, Numbered Account, appears twice in the third generation of California Chrome's dam.
Judy-Rae was acquired by Bwamazon Farm prior to her 1952 foal; in 1956, she produced a Princequillo filly named Princess Matoaka, who would become the great-great-great-great-grandam of California Chrome.
Mayer dispersed his racing stock through an invitation-only sale conducted by Fasig-Tipton at Santa Anita in 1947. It drew 7,000 people, was broadcast on three radio stations, and grossed a record $1,553,500. He needed cash to pay his divorce settlement, and his new wife was said not to be a fan of racing. Over the next four years, he sold the rest of his horses, with 248 head fetching another $4.4-million, and turned his attention to investing in art, including a large number of paintings by Grandma Moses.
After his forced retirement from MGM, Mayer got back into racing on a smaller scale, boarding his mares in Kentucky and investing in shares in Del Mar. In this brief time until his death in 1957, he bred the top stakes winner Clem, and 1959 Preakness winner Royal Orbit.
Hollywood Park would close down in 2013, with the very last stakes race being won, ironically, by California Chrome.
The flashy chestnut with an easy stride and a working class patina has shown his heels to the finest three year olds in the nation, and will now try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, carrying along a nation eager to see a Hollywood ending to this feel-good tale, which, in reality, has already had a Hollywood start.