The story of California Chrome has unfolded right before our very eyes, like that of a fairy tale or a fable of treasured memories!

Not unlike that of the dreams that have come true as a result of our involvement in the county fair. Yours may have been a purple ribbon that opened new doors of opportunity or a latent talent that was burning a hole in your heart.

Without that stage of opportunity to showcase your wares, you may have never become the person you are today. For many of us the county fair is the foundation of our very being. Uninhibited by the are and glare of the forbidden stages reserved for the privileged few, your county fair welcomes you with unconditional open arms.

Furthermore it supports you with family, friends, and neighbors that have been cheering you on ever since you can remember. It’s that kind of comfort level that propels you to higher levels of achievement.

The county fair is all about 4-H, and 4-H is all about achievement, much like that of horse racing, where achievement is measured by who comes across the nish line rst.

That’s where California Chrome enters the picture. A horse of so much charm, beauty and speed is as unlikely as that of a county fair producing such a champion. And like that of most county fair achievements, the horse is of modest means and even less expectations.

Such was my personal experience some sixty-plus years ago at the Burke county fair located at Flaxton, ND. There was this beautiful horse, almost the prototype of California Chrome — chestnut with four white socks and a blaze face. She was a stablemate to a string of racehorses that seemed to have shown up out of nowhere. These horses looked prettier and faster than the locals, and she stood out as being the most special of them all.

Her name was Salome Straw. Not a name of significance, at least not to me. But her appearance set her apart from all the other horses. I told my Dad that someday I would like to have a horse like her, not thinking that anything would ever come of it. But as the fair came to a close it was apparent that this new stable of horses didn’t live up to their billing, as they hadn’t won enough to earn enough money to even get out of town. Being the horse trader that my Dad was, he was Johnny-On-The-Spot. He offered the owner of Salome Straw enough money to fund his exit trip out of town. Gas money wasn’t so much back then, so she was a real bargain.

Assuming that Dad was going to load her up and haul her back to the farm, I couldn’t wait to leave the fairgrounds, and get home to spend some time with my new horse. But it didn’t happen that way. He saddled her up, threw me up on her and said, “She’s yours, son–ride ‘er home.”

Though it was only a couple of miles, it was the longest ride of my life, as she was fresh off the race track — with more get up and go than I could possibly handle. She fought me every step of the way, but I knew I couldn’t give up, exhausted or not.

It was like my rite of passage to earn the rights to such a special horse.  As we grew older and stronger together, we became a force to reckon with at our county fair and elsewhere. She was a real crowd-pleaser, liked to show-off and look like a winner, even if she didn’t always end-up in the winner’s circle.

She was my lady, or at least everything I thought a lady should be—beautiful and performing at a high level. Thus she was known as 'lady' for all those years of enjoyment we shared together.

It was much like that of California Chrome, except the playing eld was entirely different. We never got far beyond the county fairgrounds, nothing comparable to that of the Kentucky Derby, or the big bucks, but in her own special way—for a 9-10 year old boy, she was bigger than life, the most coveted aspiration of the county fair. Nine grand champion steers and a bucket load of treasured memories couldn’t compare.

But like that of California Chrome there were no grandiose expectations of greatness, for this was just local county fair kind of stuff. Both were cheap horses by racehorse standards. After all, how much can you expect from an $8,000.00 mare bred to an inexpensive stallion or a horse purchased for just 'gas money'. But both delivered; each in their own way. One a champion of champions and the other a dream come true for a lifetime of memories.

Dreams do come true—more so at county fairs than any other place on the face of the earth.

The magic of county fairs has come to be 4-H. It has become the heart and soul of most county fairs. Started in rural America in the early 1900’s as part of a drive by congress to have youngsters learn about agriculture, forestry, conservation, and home economics, it soon became so much more.

Today 4-H is more about leadership and the positive development of individual lives.

Though it was the intent of congress that youth would learn by participating in various activities, it soon evolved from that of just participation to that of winning and losing.

4-H was built on competitiveness, and it is the light of he or she who has the most stars that shines the brightest. It is on this very principle that 4-H can point with pride to an unending Parade of Champions. May 4-H continue to grow in the tradition for which it has lasted all these many years? The 4-H (head-heart-hands and health) remain to this day, to be the cornerstones of the greatest youth organization on the face of the earth.

I speak from experience when I express the accolades of 4-H, as it is with the greatest sense of humility that I credit 4-H for any and all the successes I’ve enjoyed in life.

Though I’ve experienced my share of failure it is the experiences of my 4-H days that gave me direction in life, became the foundation of my vocation, and taught me to always be competitive — to strive to be the best, without always being the winner.

Though always being the winner seems to be the unimaginable direction of fate for California Chrome, it may never happen again under such similar circumstances. Winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness was a nationally achieved super achievement, but the Belmont proved to be too much. And it will be too much for any horse unless the playing eld is of equal terms and conditions, otherwise the Triple Crown can be compared to a free for all at the county fair.

But, remember, it’s not about the winning or losing. It’s all about the dreams, dreaming it could happen. Why else would you buy a cheap racehorse, be it California Chrome or Salome Straw.

And why dream at all if there aren’t playing elds like county fairs, small enough to be inclusive of all who dare to dream. That’s what 4-H and county fairs have to offer.

The best horse doesn’t always win.


Feeding Off The Spirit Of The County Fair


For more insightful stories written by Ken Knight read