Cliff Oxford: Hard & Fast Lessons From California Chrome

Cliff Oxford

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

With a big champion’s heart, meager investment and a modest pedigree, California Chrome, winner of the Preakness and Kentucky Derby, was the perfect personification of the entrepreneurial horse until last Saturday when the horse, jockey, and owner blew it at the Belmont Stakes. Now that the dust has settled from Saturday’s race with a full blown “sore-loser” apology from the owner, I think entrepreneurs can learn three valuable lessons from the California Chrome team – sorry to say, this time what not to do if they want to know, grow and exit, the Triple Crown of entrepreneurship.

First, let’s get the worst example out of the way with co-owner Steve Coburn. He has been the hero entrepreneur for five weeks. While the other billionaires and corporate owners spent millions trying find a champion horse, he spent a fraction of the money and beat them all with a chestnut colt that was a lesser horse on paper but had “fire in the belly” to win on race day. Better than any book or blog, this owner and horse lived the definition of a real entrepreneur – an opportunist who has no regard for lack of resources but finds a way to win. But someone forgot to tell him you don’t always win. Coburn was riding high after two big wins and wasn’t prepared for defeat and despair. In others words, he fell off his horse and hit the ground hard – welcome to entrepreneurship. At an emotional low with his horse finishing fourth place and the Triple Crown down the drain, the owner made an ill-advised decision. He struck out at the winner, accusing him of taking a “coward’s way out” because the winning horse did not run in the Kentucky Derby and therefore had “fresh legs” compared to California Chrome who had run 3 races in 5 weeks. What the co-owner said may or may not be true, but the mistake was to say or do anything at all other than congratulate the winner, bite your lip and save face not just for yourself but for the entire team.  You lost – shut up.  Lesson one – entrepreneurs should never make big decisions or announcements after a big loss or a big win. We’ll blow it every time because of all of the emotions and egos involved.

Many would think that after a big win would be the time to cut loose, but you’ll be better off to sit tight and maybe take a shower or you’ll wind making the same blunder Richard Sherman, Seattle’s great cornerback, did when Seattle won the game over San Francisco 49ers to advance to the Super Bowl. Sherman ranted and belittled the other team on national TV in the passion of the moment seconds after the big emotional victory.  Yes, Sherman and Coburn both apologized later, but they had already demeaned their teams – damage done.

Next , the jockey made the “overthinking” mistake.  He came out of the gate ahead, pulled back, took the inside, went to the outside…and then lost the race. Underdogs cannot get too fancy even in the big leagues.  Entrepreneurs have to come out of the gates to win. This jockey should have followed the advice of the past owner/GM of the Oakland Raider Al Davis who said “just win baby.” He made the comment after his new coach John Madden had spent half an hour explaining his new complicated offensive schemes. Entrepreneurs need to keep it simple; get in front, stay in front, and not fall behind.

We learned our third lesson on the final stretch when California Chrome did not have any “gas left in the tank” to surge ahead. The jockey remarked that his horse California Chrome seemed tired and couldn’t hit that all important 2nd and 3rd gear, and that he had run three races in five weeks.  Entrepreneurs don’t get tired from winning. “Race day” is what fuels us and gets our hearts pumping fast.  It’s the distractions and stuff in between the big wins that tire us and drag us down.  Weeks of press, cameras, crowds and gawkers will take a toll on a race horse or any one of us.  Save and pace yourself for game day.

People will tell you “well that is just part of it.”  Yes, success draws flies, but real entrepreneurs have to learn to tell people “no” and change the rules of what is expected.  Dr. Jerry Williams, one of our DoctorPreneurs from Savannah, gave a good example of this when he told me “I’m head-down working all month” and passed on a couple of high level events.  Entrepreneurs have to understand the difference between what’s nice to do and what you have to do as a leader and learn to sometimes just say “no” to the “nice to do’s.”  Distractions, not the winning will make you run out of gas or cash.

I am still proud of the California Chrome team. They did win two very big races and got the country to fall in love with the horse with a big heart and small pedigree. But by overtalking, overthinking and overdoing, they overshadowed the David-versus-Goliath brand they had created so beloved in this country that it had earned them the nickname “America’s Horse.”

My grandmother had a saying, “whatever is in the bottom of the well comes out sooner or later.” Make sure the right stuff comes out of your well and they’ll be no need for apologies later.